This post mixes personal asides and commentary on Indian national and local issues prevailing during a December 2021 visit to the family home of my wife in Kolkata, India.
It is usually an annual event but did not occur last year due to Covid travel bans; my wife, however, did manage to come to the IJK in the summer but had to quarantine in a hotel close to Heathrow.
The autumn relaxation of restrictions lulled me into a false sense of security so when I heard that after a long hiatus India was again granting travel visas, I quickly purchased an Air India ticket consistent with a two month stay, at a bargain price.
What I did not factor-in was that the quick and painless electronic ‘E’ visa, which during my last 2019 visit could even be obtained on arrival without fuss, had not been reinstated. I had to revert instead to an earlier process: first make a registered on-line application and then an appointment at one of the out-sourced Visa Application Centres located in Islington and Hounslow.
To my horror, the earliest available date for such an interview was weeks away beyond the booked date of my flight departure! Following intensive efforts to get an emergency visa direct from the Indian High Commission, it sent an e-mail that offered me an appointment slot at Hounslow (located in back streets close to the soon-to-be redeveloped historic Hounslow Calvary Barracks) the day before my planned departure.
A false hope. The counter clerk soon disabused me: after collecting the fee he flatly stated that my visa would be ready in four working days and then valid only for travel for 30 days post-entry, not the usual six months.
If I had known that I would have rearranged my outward flight earlier. The resulting late notice counted as a no-show that with the required change in flight dates set me back not far short of £2,000 – more than thrice the cost of my original ticket.
Very frustrating and not the best of starts. I consoled myself that at least I was fortunate that a period of paid employment during the Covid period had allowed me to accumulate savings; and that I only had to bear the costs of changed itinerary for myself only, rather than for a larger family that some of my fellow on-the-day visa-seekers at Hounslow now faced (mainly UK passport holders of Indian origin): swings and roundabouts and all that.
In case you are wandering, this long personal preamble provides an entry into the serious business of politics. The new tight visa regime was limited to UK and Canadian nationals, who consequently took the collateral damage for an apparent tit-for-tat governmental visa dispute.
Ironically later that month it emerged that the latest Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, the Thatcherite-mantle-bearing wannabe successor to Boris Johnson, wanted to pursue a trade deal with India that involved the easing of visa restrictions on Indians wishing to study and work in the UK with the return expectation that India would ease restrictions on inward British trade and investment into its growing service sectors, such as IT.
I allowed myself a slight sardonic chuckle remembering the not-too-distant times when the Conservatives presented themselves as the party that explicitly favoured white ‘kith and kin’ immigration. A positive but probably unintended post-Brexit consequence that could make easier ‘brown’ immigration from the sub-continent central to the government’s Global Britain mantra. One to track.
Finally arriving in Kolkata early in December, as we travelled along the Airport Road, passing a cheesy replica of Big Ben before hitting the ‘expressway flyovers’ that now traverse the east and south-central parts of the city, its usual cacophony and bustle enveloped the car. Shuttered restaurants and internet cafes suggested that its recovery from India’s previous Covid waves remained uncomplete, however. To see the impact of the first Indian lockdown starting March 24, 2020 on Kolkata view this video.
That said, at the national level, India’s main stock exchange indices continued to spurt in step with a recovery in GDP that is forecast to reach nine per cent for 2021-22, following a seven per cent Covid-related decrease the preceding year.
Such figures at the national level, of course, do not necessarily replicate at the regional or grass-roots level. Incomplete detailed official statistics limits evidence-based interpretation but most commentators believe Indian post-1991 reform development model has skewed GDP gain to benefit of the middle-class and rich with the poor rural and insecure urban wage worker majority benefiting very much less, save for, to my eyes at least, widespread mobile phone usage.
Covid can only have compounded distributional inequality. I was left to wander how workers, such as the neighbourhood cycle rickshaw men, managed to maintain themselves and their families during close to two years of lockdown or muted demand. Apparently local Temples provided some support. I don’t know whether the official cash transfer scheme introduced in March 2020 following the country’s first lockdown percolated to them and their families and for how long along with the overall effectiveness of that and successor schemes.
I received my booster jab the week before my arrival, instilling confidence that I could avoid testing positive preventing my departure from India within my 30-day visa validity, which would be a problematic and expensive eventuality to say the least.
The emerging threat of Omicron provided a growing backdrop throughout my visit. I had not only missed the December exponential explosion in London case-numbers but had arrived in India just in time as inward flights from the UK were banned before the month ended.
On Christmas Eve, we visited Park Street – Kolkata’s West End – enjoying the tremendous festive street decorations, more impressive than in London pre-Covid. The crowds were stupendous, mostly well controlled by a high-visibility police presence enforcing a one-way pedestrian flow with mask-wearing exhortations generally heeded.
But as new recorded Omicron cases ticked up, then began to double in days, many of the large New Year club celebrations were cancelled for yet another year, but this time at the last moment. Even the New year firecrackers seemed more subdued compared to pre-Covid years.
A primary set of themes tend to dominate each annual visit, whether it is demonetisation, mass electronic ID roll out, pollution control, health policy reform, or employment reservation issues.
This time the concerted efforts of the second Modi government, viewed through a Kolkata lens, to impose Hindutva populist cultural nationalism in ideological and policy terms even at the expense of constitutional and democratic norms and values as well as development outcomes was centre stage.
In December the 50-year anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh (loosely translated as the country of the Bengalis) independence passed.
As way of historical background, Bengal and Calcutta was the centre of British colonial power from the late eighteenth century, when Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General with a pan-India remit presided in Calcutta, until 2012 when Delhi replaced it as the imperial Indian capital.
The associated rise and growing self-confidence of a Bengali intelligentsia during the nineteenth century made the colonial city the epicentre of Indian engagement with that same power and later constitutional Indian opposition to it and was where in the early twentieth century organised revolutionary terrorism first reared its head in earnest.
An imperialist viceroy, Lord Curzon, at the apogee of empire in 1904 announced a classic colonial divide-and-rule device to spike such indigenous nationalist opposition. He split Bengal into separate western and eastern administrative entities. The west in population mainly Hindu, including Calcutta; and the east mainly Moslem, notwithstanding that it included Assam, with the historic Mughal city of Dacca (Dhaka) as its capital.
The idea was that the poorer Muslims, freed from the fear of electoral domination within the existing undivided province and its limited property-based franchise, by the in-built Hindu majority would ally themselves with the British.
But the change provoked furious Bengali agitation that soon resulted in its reversal, announced no less by the new King George V in his 1911 Coronation Durbar, in tandem with the transfer of the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
Apart from this giving back to Bengal and Calcutta on one hand and taking away on the other, Britain maintained divide-and-rule by the establishment and entrenchment of separate electorates for Muslims that guaranteed them a minimum number of seats.
The device of separate electorates served to drive a wedge over time between the India National Congress, that since its birth in 1885 had evolved into the paramount national independence party, and the Muslim League (ML) and other parties focused on the Muslim communal electorate and its economic and social concerns.
As independence began to beckon, a brilliant London-educated lawyer, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, revived and mobilised the ML into a mass communal-based political party dedicated to the principle that the Muslims of India to protect their identity and future needed to secure a separate independent nation for themselves, free of Hindu domination: Pakistan – in effect a nation defined by religion.
The Second World War provided conditions opportune for its propagation. Congress leaders were put in prison, as Britain focused on the war effort. In 1943 over a million of the Bengali rural poor were starved by a famine caused by structural inequality and official mismanagement and negligence rather than the shortage of food, per se – what the Bengali economist Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, summarised as lack of entitlements of exercisable claims to available food.
The wider uncertainty that reigned as to the what the precise political future for India held other than ultimate divestiture of colonial power fuelled growing mistrust and latent fear between the two communities. It increasingly led to communally motivated riots and acts of violence, whether precipitated by a small-scale row or brawl that escalated, religious music or processions that antagonised one or other of the communities, or simply a wish by local wannabe gangsters to loot or to take advantage of disorder. Bengal and Kolkata in the 1940’s doesn’t seem that dissimilar to Ulster and Belfast in the 1970’s.
In August 1946 this culminated into mass communal riots and organised killings that resulted in the slaying of many thousands, often by the hatchet and club, known as the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ that stopped only at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi threatening to fast to death, if it didn’t.
A Calcutta University historian, Suranjan Das, back in 1990 differentiated it in scale and character from earlier communal riots, thus: “It was more organised, more directly concerned with institutional politics (the establishment of ML government in Bengal; the growth of Hindu revivalist organisations linked to Congress; the impact of propaganda for and against Pakistan) and hence in the prevailing climate more exclusionary related to communal politics …. and identities rather than cross-communal leftist and nationalist consciousness”.
Job, well done, Curzon!
The following year British India, amid deadly communal strife and massive population movement, was partitioned into two separate independent and sovereign nations, India and Pakistan: ‘freedom at midnight’ for most; communal-based death and destruction for the multitude victims of the ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of mixed Muslim and Hindu communities either side of the new border drawn through Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east.
Although the Muslim population, representing around a fifth of the total erstwhile undivided Indian population, was concentrated in those two provinces, it was also dispersed throughout the continent (communities often included descendants of the administrators of the Mughals).
Muslims, according to the 2011 Census, still account for over 14% of the total Indian population, by far the largest religious minority to the 80% majority of the population reported as Hindu. Christians the next largest but only accounted for 2.3%, followed by Sikhs, 1.7%.
Pakistan was bifurcated into West and East Pakistan, separated by over a thousand miles of continental India.
East Pakistan was the successor to Curzon’s east Bengal. Bengali Muslims comprised the majority population, which also included poor Muslim migrants from east India, predominately Bihar, who spoke Urdu rather than Bengali, while a Hindu landowning and commercial Hindu minority that remained accounted for around 10% of its total population at its 1947 inception. West Bengal became the Indian state of West Bengal.
The power and resources of Pakistan was concentrated in West Pakistan. The Punjab and Punjabis were hegemonic in the government and the military. They treated the Bengalis of East Pakistan more as colonial subjects than equal citizens; effeminate inferiors to the martial Punjabis; clerks rather than warriors.
Bengali nationalist discontent grew in response. It flared to a head when the Awami League (AL) – created in 1949 as a Bengali nationalist party – in the 1970 national election won 167 of the 169 East Pakistan seats. To avoid the AL exercising its majority in the national assembly, the West Pakistan-resident Pakistan President declared martial law.
A bloody guerrilla war involving atrocities on both sides broke out in March 1971 – a war that India under Indira Gandhi soon joined for its own strategic security reasons. It ended nine months later with the marooning and surrender of the Pakistani army and the establishment of the independent state of Bangladesh, jettisoning East Pakistan into the dustbin of history. Their Bihari local allies, became stateless, confined to squalid refugee camps.
Up to ten million Hindus over the next two decades also sought refuge in India including in squatter settlements around Kolkata and its surrounding rural hinterland. Other households encroached on vacant plots before going on to establishing themselves in emerging suburbs, such as Tollygunge, Chetla, and New Alipore, and across former rural areas absorbed progressively into the Kolkata metropolitan area.
Bangladesh itself was over-populated and confined in part to the Ganges delta prone to both cyclones and flooding, which could and did wipe out its means of agricultural subsistence. Shorn of industry, trade, and resources by previous British and Pakistani overlordship, it lacked an economic base to support its rapidly rising population, threatening a twentieth century Malthusian outcome that Europe the previous century had escaped through industrialisation and urbanisation.
It was a state born in blood with dismal prospects of nemesis rather than peace and prosperity. Certainly, the newly born Bangladesh was one, if not the, poorest country of the world and almost immediately became synonymous with floods and famines, making Henry Kissinger’s epithet ‘basket-case’ appear apt at the time given the new country’s dependence on external official and charitable aid. A memory of my early teenage years were newscasts of famine relief efforts that underscored homilies about not wasting food.
Yet the country survived, stabilised, and even began to prosper, despite periods of political turbulence and intolerance not prevented by weak democratic institutions that remain fragile.
A key landmark was the strategic decision taken in the eighties to develop a comparative advantage in cheap manufactured clothing to provide the primary route to export-led industrialisation. The industry has provided employment to up to four million workers, with the female proportion estimated to be as much 80%, foreign exchange, as well an impetus to invest and innovate, although concerns about child working and other working condition abuses persist. In parallel an indigenous Grameen micro-finance initiative and other social welfare advances provided springboards for a steady improvement in social welfare indicators.
Remarkably, given its inauspicious start, the World Bank in April 2021 reported that despite its per capita GDP ranking tenth lowest in the world in 1971, Bangladesh had reached lower-middle-income status in 2015, and is expected to graduate from the UN’s Least Developed Countries (LDC) list in 2026. Poverty declined from 43.5 percent in 1991 to 14.3 percent in 2016 based on the international poverty line of $1.90 a day (using 2011 Purchasing Power Parity exchange rate).
Looking forward, according to the Asian Development Bank, expected per capita GDP growth for Bangladesh is 5.5% in 2021 and 5.8% in 2022. It is now higher than India’s according to some commentators who make the case that its growth is broader-based and comes attached with better human development outcomes, vindicating its ‘bottom-up’ development trajectory. That said, the above statistics should be considered with caution given problems of collection, definition, and interpretation. Political and climate change risks remain. Its economy could become over-dependent on the garment sector.
Undoubtedly there was much for Bengalis to celebrate, and even more to ponder, on its fiftieth anniversary, not only in Dhaka but in Kolkata, a city, as we have seen, so scarred by the 1947 partition that in one stroke rent asunder its natural geographical and economic hinterland causing it to swell with refugees during the ensuing years – an experience repeated in 1971.
Calcutta – as it was then still known – itself had become a synonym for ‘third world’ poverty, squalor, and hopelessness, political violence, a period vividly captured in Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book of that name and period.
Such depictions were and remain resented locally, however; in fact, considerable progress in bustee slum improvement programmes began and have continued, even though the number of huts without a concrete roof during the post war period increased in both absolute and proportionate terms to approach 50% in 1981 – the product of not just of uncontrollable refugee and rural migration, but natural population increase.
Today the typical Kolkata home seems to be a flat in the high rises that increasingly dominates the cityscape. My walks around the local suburbs of New Alipore and Behala, at least, indicate ‘slums’ – as its middle-class term – although often hidden down an alleyway do appear integrated into its neighbourhood and provided with facilities consistent with permanence and the seeking and maintenance of employment and participation in society. Informal settlements without such facilities, along railway lines and without watercourses and close to concentrations of low paid informal employment remain, however.
Securing a true evidence-based up-to-date picture requires hard investigation into hard data from available sources. A possible task for the future.
That Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is less than 160 miles (as the crow flies: less than the distance between London and Manchester) away from Kolkata; the close linguistic and commercial ties between the cities; the legacy of the pivotal involvement of the Indian army in the freedom struggle to create the country; and that the AL – historically sympathetic to its Indian neighbour – has been in increasingly-entrenched power for nearly a decade – all might suggest that ruminations of Bengali (Bangla)-based affinity should accompany Bangladeshi’s fiftieth birthday, encouraging some resurrection of discussion on regional economic and social co-operation, at the very least.
Yet the anniversary passed with muted local notice. Why?
Cultural and class affinities tend to trump any shared ethnic and linguistic identities. Kolkata Bengalis predominantly are Hindu upper caste and middle-class; Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis are mostly Muslim (historically some were lower caste converts to the faith) and working-class.
The long and insecure land border between India and Bangladesh has encouraged focus on illegal cross-border immigration rather than closer economic integration, especially in Assam and neighbouring states, whose indigenous communities frequently react to the economic and cultural threat of Bengali Muslim migration by agitations that sometimes turn deadly violent.
Despite the linear closeness of the Kolkata and Dhaka, such political, as well as geographical – the indented and heavily forested Gangetic delta (the Sunderbans) – factors have mitigated against the development of direct fast rail, road, or ferry links between them, making flying more convenient for travellers that can afford that mode. And, in any case, few Kolkata Hindu households have family left in Bangladesh, their grandparents abandoning ancestral pre-partition lands and houses, as did my wife’s family.
More recently, Narendra Modi’s re-election as Indian Prime Minister in 2019 marked a sharp shift towards Hindutva-based nationalism of an increasingly communal colour, making the national political environment of December 2021 hardly conducive to pan-border or Greater Bengal economic integration and co-operation: something that surely should increase the GDP of both West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Modi’s government ended the special status of the State of Jammu and Kashmir (up to then, India’s only Muslim-majority state) split it into two Union government-administered territories as an obvious ploy to reduce the prospect of potential future Muslim political influence: Curzon revisited.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 was enacted, providing a path to Indian citizenship for Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, and Jain migrants that migrated after suffering persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan before December 2014, but technically came as illegal immigrants. Such eligibility, however, was denied for Muslim illegal migrants from those countries, making for the first time an individual’s religion an overt criterion for citizenship under Indian law.
During December Modi’s government even revoked the foreign exchange licence of the late Mother Theresa’s world-renowned Kolkata-based ‘Missionary of Mercy’ charity, apparently taking account of accusations that it encouraged poor Hindu recipients of its help to convert to Christianity, blocking it from receiving funds from abroad.
This was in tune with a tide of rising intolerance towards Christians in India, where churches and priests have been subject to physical attacks by local Hindu mobs for allegedly encouraging conversions to Christianity, when in most cases they appear simply to have been practising quietly their own religion.
Even more concerning were frequent reports of Hindu extremist groups spreading inflammatory anti-Muslim propaganda. Even when these went as far as exhortations to kill Muslims, the silence from government suggested silent acquiescence by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) top brass to their use at the very least as a dog-whistling tactic to browbeat the main minority.
It recalls Modi’s pronouncement when Chief Minister (CM) of the western state of Gujarat in 2002 in the wake of a firebombing by a Muslim mob of a train causing the death of around 70 Hindu pilgrims at Godra that the “people need to vent their anger”. Hindu mobs massacred 2,000 Muslims in the riots that followed.
The BJP had burst into political prominence three decades back through focused and concerted campaigns to exploit a nascent majoritarian reaction against the purported – but often fake or self-interested – socialist secularism of the Congress Party, the post-independent hegemonic political force, dominated by the family descendants of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (Harrow and Cambridge), with its associated regional power brokers.
Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (she married Feroze Gandhi (LSE) – no relative to Mahatma Gandhi), was the prime minister that ordered the Indian intervention instrumental in the creation of Bangladesh. Despite the hiatus of the ‘Emergency’ that she instigated later in that decade and its political fallout, she remained India’s dominant political figure until her assassination by a Sikh bodyguard in 1984.
Her own son, Rajiv Gandhi, Cambridge-graduate and former airline pilot, inherited the her mantle and won the election that followed on a sea of sympathetic outpouring for his mother, but after five uneven and difficult years in power lost the 1989 general election.
In 1991 he also, tragically, suffered assassination, this time by a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. Soon afterwards Congress re-assumed power with the multi-lingual South Indian Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, who appointed Cambridge economist Manmohan Singh as his finance minister.
His government was a key watershed one in the trajectory of post war Indian economic history but it managed less creatively and resolutely the Ayodhya controversy.
It was there in the sixteenth century that the conquering Mughal emperor, Babur, had demolished a centuries-old temple to build an eponymous mosque on the same site. Hindu activists/pilgrims now camped in the town agitating for that Babri Mosque (Masjid) to be demolished and for the temple that it had replaced – purported by them to be the birthplace of Rama – to be re-built. In 1992 they succeeded in demolishing the mosque during a disorder that claimed more than 2,000 lives.
The Yatra Chariot marches that BJP leaders orchestrated and led across India in 1990 proved a key turning point in the demise of Congress as the national hegemonic political power: the BJP leadership saw and took the opportunity to harness its potential to symbolise the side lining of Hindu religious-cultural-nationalist sentiment by the Congress and the political establishment/elite.
When Congress was reduced to a seat tally of 140 out of 543 in the 1996 general election, Rao soon resigned as party leader. An unstable period of coalition government followed but a conclusive 1999 general election then allowed Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the BJP, to serve a full five year term as prime minister within a National Government Alliance (NGA) coalition.
Meanwhile Congress power brokers had asked Rajiv’s widow, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, to become Congress president in the hope that the Gandhi name would help to rally electoral support. After a tricky start she soon learnt to navigate the Indian political jungle, in spite of her gender and foreign origin, asserting herself over the Congress power brokers, as had her mother-in-law two decades before.
She pulled the Congress strings at state and national level as its president during the period of opposition to the NGA government and then the technocratic edifice of Manmohan Singh’s premiership of a Congress-led coalition that was in power from 2004 until Modi’s 2014 first general election victory, when Congress was reduced to a rump of 44 Lok Sabha seats.
Her son, Rahul Gandhi (Cambridge) was elected to the Indian parliament (Lok Sabha) in 2004 for the family seat of Amethi, progressed through Congress, elected its president in 2017, but resigned in 2019 in the wake of that year’s general election defeat when he lost his Amethi seat.
He continues to make public speeches and to campaign for Congress as does his sister, Priyanka Gandhi. Either could re-emerge as Congress leaders with their mother back as Congress president.
Modi in 2021 seized the opportunity of the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir (Kashi Temple) corridor project in Varanasi to re-spin the BJP Ayodhya narrative that the Muslim Mughals were alien invaders whose actions and institutions were inimical to time immemorial Hindu culture and society.
Another Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, this time had had in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) demolished a historic temple and replaced it with a mosque, leaving remnants of the previous temple in situ. Its reconstruction on a nearby site with a clear vista to the Ganges opened-up through the removal of an intervening warren of lanes and alleys, was described by Modi on 13 December thus: “ the long period of slavery (that) broke our self-confidence in such a way that we lost faith in our own creation”, going on to present the Kashi Temple corridor as both a tangible and symbolic manifestation of India modernising in step with its Hindu cultural heritage: “Today from this 1,000 year old Kashi I call upon every countryman – create with full confidence, innovate….”. Put another way, India’s development must sit within a Hindutva cultural superstructure.
Modi’s second term has shifted away from development towards an ideologically led project to underscore that India and Hinduism is culturally and politically indivisible. The logical adjunct to that is the political neutering of India’s Muslim population and their portrayal as a product of an invasion that was not only military, administrative, but also culturally, alien. Modi advances that project using the tools of majoritarian political populism
In that light, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor, in his Review of 2021 for Tortoise Media posited that a populist demagogic political leader can be recognised by these characteristics: propaganda is more important than policy; simple untruths beat complex realities; you must demand loyalty of others, but not give it yourself; stirring up division is vital, and good; build slavish media backing and sectarian support; develop a unique way of speaking, rich in imagery and the exploitation of emotions and symbols; rewrite national history; say unsayables; use baseless claims and insults; ignore conventions; weaken Cabinet, Parliament and bodies that threaten ‘the will of the people’, as you define it; never admit you’re wrong; never accept your opponents are right; and, finally, always blame others if things go wrong.
Campbell, drawing-on Populismus für Anfänger (Populism for Beginners) authored by two Austrians, economist Walter Ötsch and journalist Nina Horsczek, concluded that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson “ticked-all the (populist) boxes”. Well, the glove fits well also on Narendra Modi, first elected as India’s Prime Minister in 2014, as it does on Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in power since 2003, or on Brazil’s, Jair Bolsonaro, who said last August that he sees only three possibilities for his future: “death, prison or winning the 2022 presidential elections”.
All have doubled-down on authoritarianism, chiselling-away at the weakening foundations (or their barest semblance in the case of Vladimir Putin of Russia) of their respective nation’s increasingly fragile democratic institutions, when they can or must to keep in power.
However, compared to Trump or, less starkly, to Johnson, the charge of sado-populism – implementing policies contrary to the material interests of their own electoral popular base – fits less comfortably, however, on the Indian premier.
To retain power, the BJP, depending on and varying with the regional and local political context, must assemble and maintain lower caste and Dajit (‘untouchable’) vote-banks, underpinned by the promise and delivery of jobs, security, and development to their members.
To that extent, development must accompany the practice of Hindutva as otherwise a split vote in the Hindu wider community – defined by socio-economic and historical cultural characteristics than by religious observance, could allow the Muslim vote to assume potential electoral importance: anathema to Modi and his cohorts.
What is most worrying and potentially tragic on a world-scale, is that India with its huge and rising 1.4bn population, its sustained success in escaping colonialism to become the world’s largest democracy, its emergence as an economic global colossus despite its diversity, rising population and continuing mass poverty, has fallen to the populist bug – regressing towards discriminatory communal-based narrow nationalism, leaving its main minorities, at best, marginalised and insecure, and at worst, in physical danger, contrary to the Indian constitution as constituted in 1947 which, however, included ‘paper’ rights such as universal access to health care.
Modi and his closely-knit inner circle (Amit Shah, currently Union Home minister, and Jagat Prakash Nadda, BJP president) during 2021 certainly shunned India’s parliament as they endeavoured to cow its democratic institutions as much as they could. They, however, met humps going down that road.
His government’s dilatory and negligent preparation and response to the Covid second wave that hit India during the spring and early summer of 2021 overwhelmed its health services, shortages of oxygen, mass burial, and even the dumping of bodies in streets, causing the government to lose its sheen of competence.
Concerted and high-profile demonstrations by Indian farmers, infuriated by the lack of consultation and preparation that preceded and accompanied hastily enacted and implemented agricultural reforms, forced their abandonment and repeal less than a year after their enactment. The BJP also lost the West Bengal state assembly elections badly.
These reverses may partly explain Modi’s doubling-down on Hindutva cultural nationalism in the approach to the 2022 state assembly elections. The most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), the Hindi heartland home to more than 200m people, whose current CM is even more of a Hindu militant than Modi, as well Punjab, Goa, and Uttarakhand states will go to the polls this year.
Enter Mamata Banerjee, the CM of West Bengal since 2011. Her portrait blandishes every party and official poster with any exceptions tending to prove the rule, making unmissable her face, endorsements, and homilies wherever you travel in Kolkata.
Her back story illustrates the capriciousness and factionalism of Indian politics. She first came to national prominence as a firebrand young radical in the Congress Party, initially locally and then nationally. Following her election to India’s parliament in 1984, her political career progressed to the point that she held twice the Union government Railways Minister and other key second rank cabinet posts, displaying a dissident streak driven sometimes by policy issues but often by factional personality/power clashes that both induced and accompanied the fragmentation of Congress into national and regional coalitions.
By the nineties Congress was mostly a spent force in Kolkata and West Bengal. She accused it of becoming stooge of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which, following an unstable period in coalition with Congress had won control of the West Bengal state government in 1977. Through rural land reform and development, trade union links and tightly knit party organisation, it consolidated its electoral reach and hold to the point that it retained control over the West Bengal state government for over 30 years.
Led by the legendary communist, Jyoti Basu, for most of them, as time went on the growing corruption and hubris of the CPI(M) administration opened-up potential space for a well organised opposition to become sufficiently electorally popular and strong enough to withstand and then overcome the powers of patronage and intimidation that ruling parties in India tend to enjoy and employ.
Mamata (as she is known locally) filled it by creating a new party: the Trinamul (meaning: springing from the grassroots) Congress (TM). It focused on addressing state-wide and local issues at such a grassroots level. Spearheading and galvanising opposition to confiscations of rural land that the CPI (M) was instigating to attract international industrial investments into designated Special Economic Zones, proved a vote winner, putting her back into national prominence.
Like her CPI(M) and Congress CM predecessors she is Bengali upper caste. Jyoti Basu spent five years in London as a student in the thirties before qualifying as a barrister, while his son accumulated a business fortune, allegedly helped along the way by the state government.
Following-on from its state assembly poll victory that halted Modi’s electoral juggernaut, the TC won a landslide of seats in the 2021 December Kolkata Corporation elections. Although fiery loudspeaker speeches and processions of a “we will vanquish our enemies” slant and tone interrupted the peace of a couple of evenings, the polling was surprisingly peaceful on the day.
Canvassing and polling booth practice, indeed, proved a near replica of UK election practice and ambience – at least it was where my wife’s family voted, save that the polling station record for the family address included a photograph of an unknown male, leaving some potential scope for voter substitution malfeasance.
That peace quite possibly, or even probably was deceptive, unfortunately, simply reflecting that the TC confident of victory instructed its workers not to conduct any unnecessary electoral infractions or acts that could consequently provoke complaints potentially queering its victory glow. Things can turn out differently during close contests when the stakes are higher.
Yet Indian democracy tends to work, not because it is pristine in process, but because at the political macro level it provides a mechanism for the registration of an overall popular verdict that in response to gross governmental hubris and abuse of authority can presage a legitimate and accepted change-over in power. It also has proved over time a relatively effective channel to balance, sublimate or accommodate the different grievances and aspirations of the manifold ethnic, linguistic, and caste groups that India comprises. Even the bribery and patronage received and deployed by candidates at the micro level can serve to increase their responsiveness to local concerns and priorities.
Modi’s crusade against religious minorities in general and Muslim communities in particular risks removing that safety valve, creating discord to the point that it could make the pre-partition assertion that the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, that Hindu and Moslems cannot live as equal citizens in India, a self-fulfilling prophecy, 75 years after partition.
Perspective, however, is called-for. Indian democracy has suffered even more stark, immediate, and deadly attacks, yet survived. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency during the seventies invoked the cessation of democratic institutions and norms and even countenanced mass forced sterilisation programmes. Her assassination set in train massacres of Sikhs in Delhi, at worst with official Congress sanction and at best with indifference. New Delhi’s treatment of Kashmiri Muslims has long blighted India’s human rights record. Communal strife stoked by continuing illegal migration is a long-term problem in Assam and neighbouring states. Closer to home in Britain our treatment of minorities and migrants often have and remains less than sublime under far more relaxed socio-economic conditions, while, of course, the populist Boris Johnson from the beginning of his premiership unashamedly upended or disregarded constitutional and parliamentary conventions.
Economically, Congress during the post-war period with its ‘licence raj’ prior to the liberalisation reforms of the nineties, generated an anaemic – nicknamed the ‘Hindu’ – rate of growth that between 1950 and 1990 averaged less than 4 per cent per annum, lower than that most of its less developed country comparators achieved during that era.
Although that rate did begin to fitfully accelerate in the eighties when concurrently across poor countries in Africa it stagnated or even declined, India’s growth during the worst years of economic under-performance barely kept pace with population increase and consequently contributed to swelling ranks of the Indian poor.
The social programmes and anti-caste pronouncements of Congress often were also more rooted in rhetoric than substance, serving to disguise the continuing dominance of the upper castes and the economically advantaged across society and their growing share of national income.
The advent of Modi, born into an economically backward caste, who served tea (chai) at the local railway station in comparison to the elite private and university education enjoyed by the members of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, represented in that sense a potentially egalitarian refreshing break or even liberation from the feudal-like paternalism of Congress.
National tax and sales tax harmonisation, grassroots sanitation and social protection programmes increasingly based on the digital Aadhaar Card, conducive to the targeting of direct cash transfers, and the rolling-out of extended publicly-supported health insurance, were all steps in the right direction, as was discussed here. The tension between his pursuit of Hindutva and broad-based development aims seemed to tilt towards the latter during his first term.
Development momentum has been retarded or swamped by the hard Hindutva focus of his successful second term campaign and subsequent record in office, however.
Modi and his close cohorts need to re-orient back to a development focus and away from using Serbian-type recourse to centuries-old historical events as a populist backstop to promote their Hinduvta cultural-nationalism agenda.
Yet, their united and closed mindset, forged by decades of committed apparatchik activity in sometimes secretive and legally proscribed extremist communal organisations, and their probable equation of their populist political methodology with continuing electoral success, appears increasingly to make that a forlorn and optimistic hope.
The future of Indian democracy requires a united opposition imbued with refreshed ideals fused with pragmatic inclusive goals that can effectively engage with the toiling Indian masses, holding the Modi’s BJP to effective real account. A tough call given the tendency of oppositions in India to fragment into factions. Mamata Banerjee, for instance, would need to join hands with the Congress leadership and regional leaders from other parties.
Rahul Gandhi in December made a stab in differentiating a tolerant and inclusive Hinduism from Hinduvta in December, but in his usual partial and dilettante way.
The development and systematisation of an compelling alternative narrative to Mod’s hard Hinduvta, focused on the inclusive upliftment of the poor majority, regardless of caste and religion, capable of popular translation by a broad range of coalition partners, awaits.
Hopefully, necessity forges progress in 2022.
Although the Greater London Authority (GLA) was established in 2000, it only assumed responsibility to administer, to allocate, and to deliver centrally funded affordable housing programmes in 2012 within a policy framework set by, and negotiated with, Whitehall.
The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, is responsible for two overlapping centrally funded housing programmes: the Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme 2016 to 2023 (2016-23 SOAHP or 2016-23 programme) and the Affordable Homes Programme 2021 to 2026 (2021-26 AHP or 2021-26 programme).
The GLA was allocated £4.8 billion in 2016-23 SOAHP central government funding to deliver at least 116,000 affordable homes by March 2022, a deadline that due to the impact of Covid on delivery was subsequently extended to March 2023.
By April 2021, around 72,000 dwelling starts and 34,500 completions from that programme were recorded. Of the remaining 43,000, around 17,000, according to the mayor, are to be started in 2021-22 and 26,000 in 2022-23, accordant with targets previously agreed with Whitehall.
In November 2020 £4bn from the successor 2021-26 AHP was allocated to deliver 35,000 affordable homes across London by March 2026. London-wide allocations from the GLA’s first bidding round for that programme were announced on 31 August 2021, when £3.46bn was allocated to 53 housing providers to deliver 29,456 homes, none of which have started yet.
The mayor expects the 2021-26 AHP – running alongside the extended and outstanding preceding 2016-23 programme – to provide a combined total of c.79,000 affordable new home starts by March 2026.
The Housing Committee of the elected London Assembly at its 19 October meeting(the committee), coincident with the publication of its 2021 Affordable Housing Monitor (2021 Monitor), considered issues relating to the past and future delivery of these two programmes.
This post uses most current up-to-date information that the committee, other forums, and the official affordable and other housing statistics published in November 2021 provide(d) to illuminate London-wide trends and issues likely to impact on affordable housing delivery until 2029.
Associated policy development implications at both central and local level are identified and related, where applicable, to the core themes of A Social Democratic Future, including the real fiscal crisis of the state.
The core conclusion is that the driving principle of the mayor’s successful 2017 Affordable Housing and Viability Special Planning Guidance should be extended nationally, but in a way cognisant with regional, sub-regional, and local housing market characteristics and values.
Such a policy shift would align to the line of current political least resistance to make the Section 106 process simpler, with greater certainty and transparency, making paramount the principle that the planning gain attributable to granting of residential planning permission should be recycled to the maximum possible extent to the provision of affordable housing and supporting social infrastructure.
It should be combined with changes in the public accounting treatment of housing investment that reflected its productive income and wealth effects and its self-funding capacity over a 30-year period.
This should tap into a discernible overlapping political and technical consensus that the provision of affordable housing must be mainstreamed through measures that directly reduce the cost and price of housing into both public and private business models, and thus blur the distinction between market and social housing, so lessening the trade-off between maximising social rented and total affordable currently aggravated by constrained central housing capital budget allocations.
1 Defining and tracking affordable housing
What precisely counts as an affordable home is itself a complex and contestable concept that tends to be tautological rather than illuminating.
The government’s definition was published in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, last updated July 2021.
Broadly speaking, dwellings provided at least 20% below local market rents (including service charges where applicable) and 20% below local market values in the case of discounted home ownership, including shared ownership, are counted affordable under that definition, which must remain at an affordable price for future eligible households or include provision for any receipts to be recycled for alternative affordable housing provision is required when public grant is involved.
Defining a dwelling as affordable, of course, does not make it by itself affordable for households of varying circumstances subject to local housing market conditions.
The GLA definition of affordable housing attempts to address that consideration, whilst maintaining conformity with the government’s definition of affordability and other programme funding conditions, where applicable, by requiring it to be made available “at a cost low enough for eligible households to afford, determined with regard to local incomes and local house prices”.
For example, the GLA defines London Living Rent (LLR) as an: “intermediate affordable housing tenure with a London-specific rent introduced by the mayor that will help, through sub-market rents on time-limited tenancies, households save for a deposit to buy their own home. Rents are based on one-third of the estimated median gross household income for the local borough, varied by up to 20 per cent in line with ward-level house prices, and capped to reflect the maximum affordability for an eligible household. Providers of LLR homes funded through the Affordable Housing Programme (AHP) 2021-26 will be required to offer tenants the opportunity to buy the LLR home on a shared ownership basis during their tenancy and within ten years. Finally, the benchmark rents also vary based on the number of bedrooms within the home”.
In planning delivery terms, Delivering affordable housing (HP4) and Affordable housing tenure (HP6) policies of the 2021 London Plan, published in March, specified the following split of affordable products delivered (proportion of total affordable units provided expressed as 100%) expected to be provided in a development):
- a minimum of 30 per cent low-cost rented homes, as either London Affordable Rent or Social Rent, allocated according to need and for Londoners on low incomes (A1);
- a minimum of 30 per cent intermediate products which meet the definition of genuinely affordable housing (A2);
- the remaining 40 per cent to be determined by the borough as low-cost rented homes or intermediate products (as A1 and A2 define) based on identified need;
- Where the proportion of (total affordable) homes provided in in a development exceeds 35% (50% on public land or on industrial sites, and public sector landowners with agreements with the mayor across a defined portfolio of sites, or 60% in case of an appointed strategic development partner), their tenure (split) is flexible, provided that the homes are genuinely affordable, as A1 and A2
The presumption is that the 40 per cent to be decided by the boroughs under (3) will focus on social rent (SR) and London Affordable Rent (LAR). HP6 does, however, recognise that for some boroughs a broader mix of affordable housing tenures will be more appropriate, “either because of viability constraints or because they would deliver a more mixed and inclusive community”, in which case it should be determined through the local Development Plan process or through supplementary guidance.
Social housing is allocated with reference to statutorily defined need categories and is mainly allocated to those on low incomes or are otherwise medically or socially vulnerable.
Intermediate housing in the guise of LLR mainly caters for potential households in employment with moderate to average (middle) household incomes below £60,000; households with gross household incomes of up to £90,000 per annum can be eligible for some intermediate home ownership products, primarily London Shared Ownership (LSO).
As an indication of prevailing actual affordable intermediate costs, a proposed 100% intermediate affordable development in Ealing will offer one bedroomed dwellings attached with a market value of c£450,000; translating – assuming that purchased equity stake is 25% on mortgage with 10% deposit found paid – into a monthly cost c£1,239, including a £223 service charge; and two bedroomed units attached with markets value between c£550-600,000 translating into a monthly cost of c£1,500, including c£300 service charge. Properties will be initially offered to eligible local households demonstrating annual household incomes of £60,000 before higher income applicants are considered.
The official statistical sources
There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Official housing statistics, of course, don’t propagate lies. They do, however, suffer from frequent definitional and consistency discontinuities, from subsequent revisions of previously published data, from gaps in coverage, and from reporting shortcomings (such as source data omissions and miscoding). All can impact on data accuracy, completeness, and transparency. Data owners can decide what to publish, in what format, over what period, and what is included and omitted.
Published data then gets subject to competing political spin narratives, selective in what data and what time periods are highlighted, presented to paint a picture of the past, present, and future that the narrator, accordant with their own organisational interests and preferences, want beholders to see.
All this makes the interpretation of housing data over time difficult, time-consuming, and an invariably less than definitive experience: confusion can consequently trump understanding.
It is important to understand what a particular statistical source in each case is describing and what it is not.
Tables 1 and 2 of GLA Affordable Housing Statistics reports affordable starts and completions that the GLA has funded or monitored as part of a wider regeneration programme. It can omit affordable housing activity undertaken by councils and other registered providers (mainly housing associations) not recorded by the GLA. It is thus a subset of total gross new affordable housing supply provided in London over any set period.
The affordable housing statistics series published by the Ministry of Levelling up, Housing and Communities (MLHC) in its Live Table 1011 is more complete, but it is only published annually in November. It “aims to provide a complete picture on affordable housing delivered, irrespective of funding mechanism”, including new build and acquisitions from the private sector, (although not losses through demolitions or sales), as well affordable completions reported in local authority as well as GLA statistical returns to MLCH, some section nil grant 106 units that the GLA in its 2019-23 returns may have omitted, as well as units funded through Right to Buy recycled receipts not counted in the GLA statistical series.
Although Table 1011S of that series reports total affordable starts only from 2015-16, Table 1011C provides a time-series for completions back to 1991-92, reproduced in Annex Table One.
The GLA and MLCH series are compared in Table 1 below.
The MCLG technical note to the latest published 2020-21 series explains the variance between the two series, thus: “local authorities are asked to only record (in their LAHS return) affordable housing that has not been reported by Homes England or the GLA. To assist them in doing so and minimise the risk of double counting, Homes England (outside London) or the GLA (within London) sends all local authorities a list of the new affordable housing recorded in their administrative systems. However, despite best efforts, double counting may still occur if local authorities misunderstand the instructions on the form or if, due to differing definitions of completion of housing, local authorities considered that a unit had been completed in a separate financial year”.
It appears higher for completions, where it can reach 40%, as it did, most recently, in 2019-20, reduced last year to 8%. Around 76% of the 2020-21 starts in the MLCH series were recorded as funded either by Homes England/GLA but only about a third of the same year completions.
Neither the GLA nor the MLHC affordable housing statistical series report net totals that take account of reductions in the affordable stock, including from right-to-buy (RTB) and from demolitions; both negative flows can be considerable.
A distinction on the margin can be made between losses due to RTB and demolitions: dwellings demolished are lost now and for ever as source of affordable housing and require the rehousing of previous occupants; yet when integral to a redevelopment or regeneration programme, they may be replaced in time.
Right-to-buy completions reduce the affordable stock and (all other things remaining the same) deflate the future flow of affordable housing opportunities (although receipts generated by the sale may enable partial replacement) but not the total dwelling stock: the dwelling sold can still be lived in by current and future occupants.
Also published annually each November, Table 118 Housing and Communities dwelling stock statistical series provides a net additional dwellings time series for London (E12000006) that is broken down into components, including new build completions, net conversions, and change in use, with demolitions netted off.
According to MLCH, it is the primary and most comprehensive measure of housing supply that provides the “only consistent data source for providing dwelling stock estimates and changes in net supply between census years in England (London), at least from 2006-7”.
That the series is adjusted to reflect the decennial Census result suggests the possible margin of error attached to it, however. And, like the GLA and MLCH affordable series it does not breakdown units provided by bedroom size (number of bedrooms).
It is not broken down according to tenure, and therefore it cannot be directly reconciled with the MLCH annual affordable housing series. It can only be inferred from both series, that gross affordable completions accounted about a third of total new build completions during 2020-21.
Programme phasing, starts and completions
The GLA affordable housing programme is subject to successive central government funding allocations, themselves subject to comprehensive spending review decisions. Each multi-year funding settlement then is allocated by the GLA to individual development partners following an application, competition, and moderation phase.
Development programmes then involve long lead-in times, requiring total scheme funding to be negotiated or identified, and the necessary scheme approvals to be secured and preparations undertaken, prior to any start on site.
Complex and multi-partner scheme developments take years to gestate and then complete. For example, the large-scale redevelopment of the Hackney Woodberry Down and Ealing South Acton council estates took or will take up to 30 years to complete.
The GLA’s Capital Funding Guide defines dwelling start as the date when the investment partner and contractor has signed and dated the building contract and the building contractor takes possession of the site or property and undertaken some necessary defined preliminary works, such as excavating for foundations or infrastructural drainage work.
The beginning of each programme cycle for such starts invariably is relatively fallow followed by a rapid pick-up that then is translated into a later bunching or concentration of completions towards the, or even beyond the end, of successive funding programme cycles.
For example, in 2014-15 over 18,000 completions were recorded (see Annex Table One London 2029), more than three times the volume recorded the following year, reflecting the concentration of completions at the end of the 2011-15 Affordable Housing Programme.
The latest stipulated date for 2021-26 AHP funded dwellings to start is March 2026 and the end date for their completion is March 2029: a potential gap of eight years between programme inception and end, and three between the start and completion of individual dwellings.
The preceding 2016-23 programme is attached with no backstop completion date, meaning that completions funded by that programme could possibly trickle-in towards the end of this decade.
In that light, October’s Housing Committee (the committee) was reminded that a family can only live in a dwelling when it is completed, not when it is started; on the other hand, assessments of programme delivery need to relate to the applicable programme funding and associated target arrangements.
Using GLA Table 1 affordable starts within the capital funded or reported by the GLA since 2008 have averaged annually, overall, around 11,000: 12,000 during 2008-12; falling to less than 9,000 in 2012-16; rising again to approach 13,000 during 2016-21, as Table 2 of this post catalogues in the next section.
Much care is needed in interpreting such overall averages, however, as they are sensitive to the choice of period surveyed. And any average taken over a period can mask variations marking that period or an underlying trend within an inherently shifting story, compounded as it is by programme phasing and the gap between starts and completions identified above.
Over 30,000 dwellings under the 2016-23 programme were started during 2019-21 suggesting a total figure of c43,000 remaining programme starts between April 2021 and March 2023, nearly double the average annual of 11,120 starts during the preceding decade (excluding any that may also be funded under the 2021-26 AHP).
Such a level of starts, if achieved, will then feed into subsequent 2021-26 completion figures, pushing them beyond the previously record 2008-12 completion average, plus some.
On the other hand, the smaller 35,000 dwelling 2021-26 programme will subsequently come on stream from 2023, pushing down the average annual start and then the completion rate towards the end of the decade.
A total of c108,850 expected GLA dwelling starts between the decade April 2019 and March 2029 (c30,500 2019-21 starts plus 43,000 remaining 2016-23 programme starts plus 35,000 2021-26 programme starts) by itself, if achieved, would provide an overall annual average of just under 11,000 for that period, and an even lower completion average. That figure, however, excludes the unknown number of starts that can expect to result during 2027-29 from any successor programme to the 2021-26 programme, and from any other additional allocations.
All of this, of course, shorn of context is prone to presentational cherry-picking.
Improving statistical reporting
Neither the GLA nor the MLHC affordable housing series break down start and completion activity according to bedroom category. This is an important omission insofar that much new affordable housing in London, as noted earlier, is delivered through multi-decade redevelopment/regeneration schemes. These often involve the phased demolition and replacement of existing social rented and other housing tenures by a higher number of one to two bedroomed units.
In that light, the 2021 Housing Monitor recommended that bedroom numbers should be included in the GLA data, which should also capture all gains and losses to the affordable housing stock, and that starts and completion data should also differentiate between funding programmes.
This website has asked both the GLA and MLCH to make efforts to reconcile its respective affordable housing series, and the MLCH its affordable and net additions series.
And, as the London Plan highlights, the growing importance of Section 106 in providing additional affordable housing supply within London means that it is crucial that their implementation and review mechanisms are monitored to ensure that the additional homes contractually committed are delivered in the form promised.
Its monitoring of affordable housing (HP7) policy, in that light, requires boroughs to have clear monitoring processes to ensure that the affordable housing secured on or off site is delivered and recorded in line with the requisite Section 106 agreement, and to share that monitoring information with the GLA to incorporate within its annual monitoring process, and, to underpin the accuracy of their statistical returns to MLHC.
These returns, in the view of this website, should record all individual housing obligations contained in section 106 agreements, and to track them according to whether they are:
- delivered in accordance with the agreement; or,
- remain outstanding; or,
- were cancelled; or,
- differed in quantum and composition to the original agreement.
2 What the published available statistics tell us and what they don’t
The most telling message conveyed by Table 2 below concerns programme composition.
It shifted from social rent (accounting on average for 64% of starts 2008-12) to affordable rent (55% of starts, 2012-16), then followed by shifts in favour of intermediate housing provision (50% of starts) and of social rent (31% of starts), both away from affordable rent during 2016-21.
The total and proportionate share of social housing should increase significantly further in the future on current plans. An August 2021 mayoral press release advised that 57 per cent of the 2021-26 AHP programme will be for social rent, of which half will be delivered by councils; shared ownership or London Living Rent accounting for the rest.
That increased 57% proportion compares to the 46% share that social rent took of the total number of affordable dwellings started in 2020-21, and the 64%, 30%, and 17% of total affordable completions that on average social rent accounted for throughout the 2008-12, 2012-16 and 2016-21 mayoral terms, respectively.
The 2021 Monitor also broke down starts and completion according to borough. Four boroughs completed over 2,000 affordable dwellings in total between April 2016 and March 2021 (over 500, on average, each year): Tower Hamlets, Newham, Southwark, and Ealing. At the top, Tower Hamlets, 4,306 completions, while the other three ranged from 2,709 in Newham to 2,070 in Southwark.
Four contributed less than 400: Richmond, Harrow, Havering, and Hillingdon, with Richmond reporting the lowest: 210.
With respect to social rent/LAR completions, Tower Hamlets, Newham, and Ealing all reported over 500 completions over the same period (18% to 23% of their respective total completions). Sutton reported two; Kingston, three; Harrow, four; and, Richmond, 16.
These headline figures, however, do not provide a good guide as to the progress of each borough in meeting the 2021 London net additional dwelling requirements that Annex Table Two London 2029 reproduces.
Ealing, for example, has a 10-year net completion target ending March 2029 of 21,570 dwellings. An October Planning Appeal decision noted that the borough is delivering, at best, 40% of its objectively assessed need for affordable housing while the council accepts that it cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites (consistent with it delivering its London Plan targets).
As the previous section noted, the GLA affordable housing statistics series only cover programme activity that the GLA monitors, thus excluding some local authority and housing association self-funded and nil grant section 106 activity. Nor does it breakdown starts and completions according to type of provision.
Table 3 provides that breakdown by utilising the more comprehensive and complete MLCH series
Strikingly, more than 50% of the total 10,800-odd affordable dwellings completed during the last two 2019-21 years were delivered through the nil grant Section 106 route – a progressive increase from the 13.7% recorded in 2014-15.
To put that secular trend into an even longer-term perspective, until 2013-14 (when they accounted for 12.7% of the total, a proportion that thereafter rose steadily year-on-year, as above) the share of the total affordable supply accounted for by nil grant Section 106 completions had had previously exceeded 10% in one year only: 2006-07 (see Annex Table One London 2029).
Table 3: Affordable completions, according to tenure type and section 106 status, 2014-21
In tune with that, GLA analysis of planning data, published in March 2021, reporting mayoral approvals of planning applications referred to the mayor during calendar year 2020 (largely because application concerned more than 150 dwellings), advised that 37% – the same proportion as 2019, a record – of the total 38,865 units approved (14,337), and 41% of habitable rooms (a better measure as it take account of dwelling size composition and mix) were affordable. That proportion had only reached 30% in 2017, after previously out-turning in the 18% to 25% range between 2011 and 2017.
Apparently discordant with that secular trend, however, MLCH Table 1011S indicates that only c16% of 2020-21 starts were expected to be funded through nil grant Section 106 route.
Table 4 shows that successive ten-year average completions have not diverged from the 30-year average by more than 8%.
Over successive five year periods more variation is discernible, but the table provides little evidence that the political complexion of the government in power proved a major factor; the two lowest five year averages reflected, first, a squeeze on public housing investment in affordable housing during the early New Labour years; and, second, the during 2016-21, the tail end of fiscal austerity acting disproportionately on housing capital investment presided over by David Cameron and George Osborne, tempered in outcome by increased nil grant section 106 supply.
Completions recovered to reach record levels during the later New Labour years; as the previous section noted, new record levels can be expected at some point during the next decade as 2019-23 start levels subsequently feed into completions.
On the whole continuity interrupted by macro-economic, public expenditure, electoral, and programme cycles, rather than any overarching ideologically-led policy intervention, consistent with post-Thatcherite governments recognising the need for additional affordable housing, if not the means.
The primary and overwhelming message is that the delivery of affordable supply has grossly undershot assessed requirements and aspirations, regardless of the political colour of the governing party.
Table 5 below uses the MLCH net additions series. It records a near-doubling of net supply from the levels recorded in the early noughties to reach c32,000 by 2009. The impact of the GFC then resulted in a drop to c21,000 in 2012-13, then a progressive increase (interrupted in 2017-18) took it to a record c41,000 dwellings in 2019-20 (including c37,000 new build completions). It then dropped back, probably due to Covid-related impacts, by 9% to c37,000 (including c33,000 new build completions) last 2020-21 year.
A sharp fall in demolitions was also recorded in 2020-21.
Table 6 below advises that new builds account for most net additions, although between 2015-17 changes in use from office and other uses to residential reached 22%, prompting wider concern about the space and other standards. It dropped back later in the decade.
The source statistical series (MLHC, Table 118) is not broken down according to tenure. The relative negative impact of demolitions on affordable net supply outcomes can be expected to be higher: large scale demolition of existing social housing estates has generally been more prevalent in recent decades than redevelopment of privately owned stock, more predominant in in the 60’s and 70’s.
In that light, a Southwark Monitoring Report covering the April 2004-19 period reported 15,237 planning affordable home planning approvals but a net increase in affordable supply of only 9,924.
The demolition of estates, such as the Heygate, close to the Elephant and Castle, subject to comprehensive and long-term redevelopment and replacement programmes can cause net affordable housing supply, taking account of demolitions, to subtract from gross affordable supply.
The committee was told that housing associations and other social landlords face ‘competing priorities’ between maintaining existing buildings and developing new homes, with the cost of remediating fire safety defects and decarbonising homes reducing the capacity to build new ones. A central headwind echoed in the last meeting of the London First convened Council-Led Housing Forum (the forum) held that same morning.
Richard Hill, vice chair of the G15 group of housing associations within London, advised the Housing Assembly committee that the ‘operating environment’ its members faced required them to re-focus on building safety and investment on their existing stock, causing their development numbers to go down, noting that housing associations face multi-million billion bill to fix safety issues over the next 15 years that came attached with an opportunity cost of around 72,000 new affordable homes foregone.
The London Plan, indeed, includes requirements for all developments of ten or more homes to be net zero-carbon and to incorporate sustainable urban green spaces as part of a wider drive for London to be a zero-carbon city by 2030.
The mayor in his August press release also confirmed that housing providers building homes funded by the new 2016-23 programme, on top of that core climate change sustainability requirement, will also have to meet new conditions on building safety and design, including:
- The installation of sprinklers or other fire suppression systems in new blocks of flats;
- A ban on combustible materials being used in external walls for all residential development, regardless of height;
- Minimum floor-to-ceiling heights and a requirement for private outdoor space;
- A ‘sunlight clause’ requiring all homes with three or more bedrooms to be dual aspect, any single aspect one- or two-bedroom homes to not be north-facing and at least one room to have direct sunlight for at least part of the day.
Switching to the crucial wider economic environment, deputy mayor for housing, Tom Copley, advised the committee that rising building costs along with shortages of materials and labour in the construction industry could “have a serious impact on scheme viability”, while Darren Levy, director of housing for the London Borough of Newham, starkly warned that: “We’re seeing materials, labour all increasing in cost. [There are] supply chain issues. There’s a general lack of stability. The labour market is becoming more challenging, there are fewer skilled operators available, and they have to a certain extent got a number of suitors in the construction industry in London… I do think, going into the next five to 10 years, it will have a significant impact into that future pipeline”.
On top of that, NIMBY-related opposition to developments that might meet London Plan and local plan requirements but are perceived as detrimental to the local environment and/or future house price prospects, will also need to be navigated.
One of the appealing characteristics of many parts of London is that high quality and high value residential areas are often cheek-by-jowl to social housing or mixed tenure developments. But residents of the former tend to possess more effective voice power in a local planning decision context to oppose and sometimes block high density new affordable housing developments.
The role of councils
On a positive note, a ‘renaissance of council housing’ was celebrated, which the forum was advised involved the delivery since 2018 of more than 8,000 affordable dwellings by London councils; a figure expected to rise to c.10,000 by March 2022, notwithstanding the recent impact of Covid.
As was noted earlier, councils have been allocated more than 50% of the 2021-26 programme for social rented accommodation, which is expected to translate into an additional c12,000 such units funded with GLA support over the next five years.
Southwark, for instance, has a longstanding commitment to provide an additional 11,000 council homes through ‘various means’ by 2043, as part of its efforts to maintain a net increase in the council stock; an aim helped in recent years by rising values that makes the right-to-buy increasingly unaffordable to existing tenants and by higher social housing re-provision levels after a period when losses of social rented stock resulting from estate -regeneration -linked demolitions and RTB’s exceeded gross new affordable provision..
Barking and Dagenham established in 2017 a wholly owned company, Be First, that with 400 hectares of development land, proclaims plans to “provide 50,000 high quality new homes and 20,000 new jobs by 2037”. More modestly, its 2020-25 business plan that the local cabinet approved in April 2020, envisaged “the delivery of 116 new homes in 2020/21 from four development projects and the commencement of seven new development projects to deliver a further 938 homes up to 2024-25, with an average of 73% affordable housing”.
Moving west, Ealing’s November 2020 Cabinet approved a £390million business plan for BLRP, a subsidiary of its wholly owned housing development company, Broadway Living. Along with the £99m grant that the council secured from the Greater London Authority in 2018, the investment will be used to build at least 1,300 affordable homes within the next six years. In total, the plan expects to see BLRP build 1,513 homes, with the sale and let of some of the homes subsidising the development of more homes for affordable let. The business plan projected that BLRP to pay for itself over the course of half a century by “recouping the initial investment through sales and rents”.
A lot can happen over such timeframes, however, and such local development company initiatives come attached with uncertain and elongated risk profiles embracing, but not exclusively, execution, development linked to market conditions, interest rate, and funding source, risk.
The experience of Croydon’s locally owned development, Brick by Brick, created in 2016 demonstrates their potential impact provides a salutary warning. It received £200m in development loans from the council, but by 2021, after its development programme stalled, had not produced any dividends or returns, contributing to its parent council and owner becoming in effect insolvent and unable to make a balanced budget.
Mr Hayes at the forum related a shift from the previous reliance on housing associations to develop affordable or acquire housing from developers to a reaction to the growth of ‘mega’ associations with confused commercial and social ends, drawing on his previous experience as Ealing’s regeneration-lead to note the actions of two associations in embarking on a bidding war for sites contrary to the local public and social interest.
Councils with their greater democratic accountability and their ability to co-ordinate planning with provision activity and to overview local housing and other markets are relatively well-placed to step-in and step-up provision to fill the gap left by HA’s hamstrung by post-Grenfell pressures to spend on their own stock.
Councils, however, compared to private housebuilders, face higher development costs, including across their material supply chains; in that light, moves to aggregate purchasing across organisations and to secure greater vertical integration of their development activity (such as setting up in-house construction arms) can be expected.
On a different but related note, drawing on his current role at Be First, he also noted the rising value of industrial land, reaching £6m per acre, as a constraint on direct provision, although he felt that values would plateau into the medium-term.
The forum was also told that some London authorities are also approaching their Housing Revenue Account (HRA) borrowing cap and that, overall, the scope for councils to expand further direct provision beyond current plans is likely to be limited.
Taken in the round, the conclusion must be that council provision of social housing will remain a sub-theme rather than a transformative one in London housing the next decade.
The funding environment
Pat Hayes, the current managing director of Be First, also highlighted at the forum possible policy risk, cautioning that the current mercurial ‘right-wing populist’ Johnson-led government, gyrating between radical market- and state-led interventions, could simply decide to move the policy goalposts concerning council provision.
The biggest risk, as it seems to this website, is the replacement of Johnson by a successor more wedded to Rishi Sunak’s proclivity for a smaller state and fiscal conservatism – a far from unlikely scenario, even though one still likely to be tempered by the wider political imperative to retain the recently won Conservative – in the absence of a more precise description – ‘working class’ and ‘red wall’ vote.
Certainly, central government cannot be relied upon to provide increased funding support. Although the 2021 Spending Review (SR21) did announce an additional £1.8 billion in total for housing supply, on top of the existing £11.5 billion investment through the Affordable Homes Programme (2021-26), of which £7.5 billion is over the SR21 period, 65% of the funding will be for homes outside London.
The government’s political driver to target resources to the North and the Midlands – the home of its ‘red wall’ seats – to further its Levelling Up agenda combined with the chancellor’s commitment to bring down the share of national income taken by public debt within three years, means that any further increase in centrally supported housing investment for London is unlikely.
The £4.9bn that Tom Copley advised the committee that is needed ‘every year for 10 years’ to provide affordable housing on the scale needed will remain ‘for the birds’ in the absence of imaginative and radical systemic change to the housing finance system, requiring at least some measure of cross-party support.
The concluding section will return to that.
Changing programme composition
The funding and other sources of affordable housing are multiple subject to frequent change. The average amount of public grant or other support required to deliver affordable housing varies according to tenure, location, and bedroom mix, the prevailing policy environment, as well as wider macro-economic and housing market conditions.
Public grant support was squeezed down practically to nil during the 2014-19 period when public housing investment became a key victim of fiscal austerity. A social rent unit will require more than twice as much public support than an intermediate unit.
As way of example, the GLA’s Building Council Homes for Londoners fund offered £100,000 per Social Rent/London Affordable Rent compared, compared between £28,000 and £38,000 for London Living Rent, London Shared Ownership (LSO) or other genuinely affordable intermediate unit started between April 2018 and March 2022.
Programmes comprising 90% social housing and discounted home ownership, respectively, will generate quite different numbers of additional housing opportunities for households of different social-economic characteristic.
Politics abhors a vacuum, and Tom Copley at October’s committee highlighted that the mayor had successfully argued (or, put another way, the government for its own reasons had been willing to accept the principle) for the majority of the 35,000 homes to be provided (started) by 2026 to be social rent dwellings, the “most affordable and most needed” homes, noting that “the government has come full circle from when it originally wouldn’t allow social rented homes to be created”.
He further pointed out that the 2016-23 programme of 116,000 dwellings was attached with £4.9bn grant support compared to £4bn for the 35,000 dwellings currently expected to be delivered through the 2021-26 programme.
The average unit public grant cost of £42,000 to provide each of the 116,000 affordable dwellings under the 2016-23 programme will rise (mainly due to the change in programme composition towards the more grant-intensive social rent, but also due to build cost inflation and the cost of design, quality, sustainability, safety and equality, diversity, and inclusion benefits) to a projected c£114,000 for each of the expected 35,000 dwellings of the 2021-2026 programme dwellings.
The reversion back to social rent should help to contain the central government housing benefit bill to a lower figure than would be the case if the same units were to be provided at the ‘affordable rent’ tenure (higher rents require more benefit where tenants are eligible, which the majority are) and at the margin should enhance work incentives; crucially, too, the shift from intermediate to social rent should more directly assist authorities to get a greater number of homeless families out of expensive and unsuitable temporary accommodation.
The downside, however, is the much higher subsidy requirement involved in providing a social unit and the resulting trade-off that exists at any given total level of grant availability between, on the one hand, maximising social housing and, on the other, total affordable numbers, largely explains why the total number of affordable dwellings that the 2021-26 programme will deliver (start) will deliver less than a third than its predecessor (expected delivery according to current conditions and plans).
The cross subsidy model
Providers, mainly the mega housing associations, ‘stretched’ receding levels of public grant over the last decade, buttressed by reserves providing a capital risk buffer, and by building units for market sale to cross-subsidise the provision of affordable homes, between and within schemes, for example, when large council estates are progressively demolished and replaced with a higher number and density of predominately private dwellings, which when sold to finance succeeding scheme phases.
But, as noted above, post-Grenfell and other spending pressures bearing down on such providers will curb its future scope.
Across recent decades the predominate development model has been cross subsidy, certainly within London and the main urban conurbations. The process has helped to maintain gross affordable supply during a period of constricted public grant support availability.
But the cross-subsidy model will not by itself provide the affordable housing on the scale required; certainly, in the absence of a scale increase in public grant that the current unreformed public expenditure and wider policy environment will not provide.
It suffers also from other shortcomings that can militate against or even undermine its purported purpose. Cross-subsidy is intrinsically sensitive to wider market conditions, which – as in the wake of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) – can interrupt, delay, or even forestall development progress.
The model encourages – and even at the margin is dependent – on providers to maximise market sale proceeds. This incentivises them to market and sell units, for example, to foreign investors or wealthy parents of foreign students, pushing-up prices way beyond the reach of local people on moderate to above average local incomes.
Even where developers can only maximise sale proceeds by targeting local buyers, many of whom are likely to have far from high household incomes, who then, in effect, cross subsidise the affordable units, the numbers of which, in turn, in the absence of additional public grants support, can be crimped when market sales proceeds are limited by local purchasing power.
More fundamentally, but related to above, the cross-subsidy model is predicated on, and perpetuates, a housing system that become increasingly riven and driven by multiple market failures, concentrated in the more economically buoyant sub-regions concentrated south of the Humber and Trent and east of the Tamar.
Use of nil grant Section 106
London in recent years have, as Table 3 demonstrated, increasingly has come to rely upon nil grant Section 106 planning agreements (obligations) to deliver affordable housing. It is, in effect, a mechanism to partially recycle or ‘tax’ the uplift in value secured through residential planning permission; as such it is integral to the cross- subsidy model: a palliative to the imperfections of the broken wider housing market on which it relies.
In the past, information and expertise imbalances between local authorities and developers allowed the latter to game the Section 106 system to their own advantage, increasing developer profit at the cost the number of affordable units provided: St. Mary’s Residential Case study provides a high profile Southwark example
The progressive step-increase in the proportion of total new gross affordable supply taken by nil grant Section 106 since 2013 provides some evidence of greater local authority focus and effectiveness in negotiating and then securing delivery of higher levels of affordable housing within regeneration and other schemes using the cross-subsidy model (as well as to the sterling and painstaking work done by organisations, such as the Southwark-based 35% Campaign.
A key catalyst of that step-increase was the 2017 Affordable Housing and Viability Supplementary Planning Guidance (2017 SPG), now formally enshrined in the 2021 London Plan, supporting its polices including HP5 and HP6 (discussed below), are to be implemented, which must be taken into account as a material consideration in planning decisions.
A streamlined Fast Track Route was introduced for schemes that include at least 35% cent affordable housing, and 50% on public or redeveloped industrial land that enables them to progress without the need to submit detailed viability information and without late viability review mechanisms which re-assess viability at an advanced stage of the development process.
This, according to the mayor, “provided greater certainty to the market, sped up the planning process, and has helped to increase the level of affordable housing secured in new developments”. The consequent greater consistency and certainty has substantially improved outcomes.
Schemes that conversely do not provide the threshold level of affordable housing or meet other relevant policy criteria, or that provide off-site or cash in lieu contributions, must continue to follow the Viability Tested Route and are subject to viability scrutiny and late, as well as early, review mechanisms.
Tom Copley was asked at the committee whether more affordable housing could be squeezed from private developers through the Section 106 route.
He was not hopeful, however, no doubt taking his cue from his peer, the Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration, and Skills, former Hackney mayor, Jules Pipe, who a month earlier advised the September London Assembly Planning and Regeneration meeting in a Question and Answer session that continuing to rely on developer section 106 contributions to provide affordable homes, is “not a viable way of delivering the amount that we need as a capital city even combined with housing grants. Neither is sufficient….it is still obviously a very valuable tool and we would be loath to lose it. If anything, it needs to be enhanced, but quite how … when you are still requiring all these other things from a development, it will only pay for so much. Going back about ten years, it would have been standard for developers to expect about a 20% return. I think we are getting them down to about 12.5% on many of the developments that we see. Much below that, the real estate community will say, “Well, actually, we do not get enough return in London, we will go and develop elsewhere, thank you very much.”
That last point is addressed below.
4 What needs to be done
The 2021 London Plan (plan), based on a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) undertaken in 2017, publicised that London needs to deliver each year c66,000 net additional completions across all housing tenures for the next ten years, two thirds (c43,500 or 65%) of which should be in social or affordable tenures.
Yet the Planning Inspectorate report that reviewed it concluded that over the next 20-25 years capacity only existed to deliver only 52,000 net new homes per year. Consistent with that, the total ten-year target for new dwelling additions across London contained in the London Plan (reproduced in Annex Table Two) only totals 522,870 dwellings. Little evidence exists to provide confidence that authorities are on track to meet their targets with some, such as Ealing, reported earlier, unable to demonstrate sufficient progress.
The stark fact is that the past, the current, and the planned future provision of both total and affordable homes within London, as demonstrated in this post’s data tables, will continue to fall well short of the plan’s target and capacity.
The improved levels of annual net additions achieved in recent years, reported in Table 5, running at c40,000 still are less than two-thirds of the SHMA requirement, while the proportion of that total taken by affordable dwellings seldom exceeds a third.
Much therefore must change if future delivery is to approach declared needed levels.
On a positive note, a general cross-party – national and local – political acceptance has developed that new dwelling supply, and the share of affordable housing within that total, should, indeed, increase.
That acceptance, albeit sometimes masked by tactical discordant rhetoric – whether emanating from Whitehall or City Hall – has, however, been largely limited to the payment of lip service to a recognition that the ‘housing market’ does not work, save for some measure of government pragmatism in terms of policy change at the margin, such as lifting of the HRA borrowing cap.
But the radical and concerted changes to the strategic policy framework that real progress requires has stubbornly remained backstage.
Why land and multiple housing market failures bedevil new housing opportunity
The slippery slope began with the progressive divorce of the twin-principles enshrined in the 1947 Town and Planning Act that both development control and value vested with state. During the 50’s and 60’s the reduction and abolition of development (betterment) and changes in compulsory purchase legislation, in combination provided scope for developers to realise future gains from value uplifts attributable to the granting or even hope of residential planning permission.
That process and its resulting consequences has been clearly charted by the work Derek Bentley has done for Civitas, most specifically in The Land Question, which by piecing together various sources, noted that between the mid-1950’s and 1990’s, the average price of land attached with residential planning permission, at 2016 prices, spiralled from £150,000 per hectare to £1.3m, surging again to £5m by 2007, reaching £6.2m prior to the onset of the GFC. Values have risen subsequently. Land in agricultural use without prospect or hope of development is attached with an average value of £22,000.
This website in The Measurement of Land Prices used similar sources to report 1994-2010 valuation trends of land vested with planning permission, while noting problems inherent in the compilation of land price indices (largely ceased since 2010) which try to provide weighted averages of an enormous array of transactions that vary according to site size, location and connectivity, other site circumstances, on the density of its development, and on the planning conditions imposed, as well, of course, on actual and expected future market conditions,
More recently, indicative land values of a hectare of land attached with residential planning permission across London ranged from £6m to more than £35m.
Technical detail should not, however distract from the clear and instructive story that Figure 1 below paints of the upward step-change in land prices that commenced in mid-fifties accelerating across cyclical oscillations, subsequently.
The financial liberalisation of the eighties, lubricated by the secular downward trend in interest rates, easier access to mortgage finance, and growth of dual income households, increased monetary demand for housing.
It was not accommodated by supply, constricted, as it was, by the cessation of mass council building programmes and by a tendency towards market concentration in the private housebuilding sector.
The prospect of higher market sale proceeds, crucially, bids up the future cost of development value of land, propelling prices further upwards, sometimes in a frenzy to be followed by a subsequent bust that then compresses supply even further. Higher and rising proportions of residential development value, up to 70%, are now accounted for by land.
The housebuilding industry has been transformed from one marked by dispersed multiple small and medium-sized suppliers in often local markers competing on both quality and price to an oligopolistic structure dominated by a few large, mainly national, builders. The three largest Persimmon, Wimpey and Barratt, account now for around a quarter of the market, compared to 1988, when Daily Telegraph columnist, Liam Halligan, in his recent book, Home Truths, advised that 40% of completions were provided by 12,200 companies.
The end-result, now widely noted and recognised across the political and ideological spectrum, is that the these now dominant companies have become price-givers driven by an incentive to restrict supply to maximise their short-term profit rather than output, allowing them to make supra-profits – as much as £60,000 or more per house built, and to pay chief executive and other salaries and bonuses in the millions, while engaging in restrictive practices, such as inserting covenants that involve regular doubling of ground rents on properties that could be sold freehold.
It is a ‘market’ in name for a product – vital to individual and community well-being – distinctive in that it has risen in price so much in both absolute and relative terms in tandem with a quality decline, where consumers can exercise so little real choice. It is truly a market broken by the imperfections and distortions outlined above.
Two pathways – given the prevailing and expected future political and financial environment – appear to provide the best and most feasible routes to future London and national housing affordability.
1 Public accounting for productive housing investment
Across the short-to-medium term, there is little or no prospect of any further step-increase in central government housing investment funding arriving to push up that total substantially to lessen that trade off; the downside risk, rather, is that fiscal conservatism will have re-exerted itself within the Conservative government by the time of the next spending review.
Even in the unlikely event that a Labour or hung parliament was elected in 2023-24, a scale increase in housing investment would require it, not only to set fiscal rules that lift the current 3% of GDP ceiling on investment expenditures, but to juggle and prioritise competing public investment demands in such a way that both maintains financial market confidence and avoids construction industry material and labour shortages.
Recent speeches by the Labour leader and his shadow chancellor have emphasised that Labour next in office will be ‘fiscally responsible’ and will not ‘throw public money’ at problems for the ‘sake of it’.
Quite so, but also redolent of New Labour whose early headline adherence to previous Conservative spending plans to demonstrate its fiscal probity resulted in a squeeze on affordable housing investment during the early noughties, which had deleterious economic and social consequences.
A symptom of the real fiscal crisis of the state marked by a mismatch between the public expenditure requirements of the UK and the political and electoral willingness for them to be met through salient and efficient forms of taxation, or borrowing where economically and financially sustainable and appropriate.
Given that, it is both vital for, and incumbent on, the housing sector to make as strongly and clearly, as possible, both the economic and financial, as well as social, case for increased affordable housing investment, and to integrate that with supporting supply side reform to the construction industry.
Affordable housing investment due to rising rents and values, can be self-financing over a 30 year or plus time span. An increased supply of social housing should reduce and deflate the future costs of keeping priority households in expensive and unsuitable temporary accommodation.
A strong invest-to-save case, therefore, can and should be made, alongside, and integrated, where possible, with innovative reforms to the financing of affordable housing and its associated public accounting treatment consistent with the above.
2 A root remedy to engage with an overlapping political consensus: deflating future land prices directly by embedding affordability requirements
The 2017 SPG adopted the Existing Use Value Plus (EUV+) approach (current use value of a site plus an appropriate site premium), to determine the benchmark land value. It serves to embed known and increased affordable housing requirements, crucially, into the generation of shared future public and developer expectations on expected sale receipts and thus acceptable planning gain surpluses, then feeding into future land value and price expectations. That is getting to the root of the matter (addressing a core housing market failure: escalating land prices based on speculative rent.
Housing Policy Five (HP5) incorporated into the 2021 London Plan (para 4.5.4) confirmed that the approach seeks to embed affordable housing requirements into land values and create consistency and certainty across London, noting earlier where there had been a relaxation in affordable housing and other planning requirements, it typically led to higher land values, not an increase in housing delivery. It further advised that the 35 per cent affordability threshold level will be monitored and reviewed in 2021 to determine whether it should be increased, with any changes consulted on as part of an updated Affordable Housing and Viability SPG or through a focused review of the London Plan.
Jules Pipe did shed doubt, however, in September, as the preceding section noted, whether much more affordable housing can be squeezed out of the Section 106 route at the London-level, at least without wider, supporting, and concerted changes to the national policy framework.
A point, indeed, that this website’s March 2018 Response to London Plan consultation advised that it : “fully supports the aim and content of the Mayor’s AHVSPG (2017 SPG) and believes that it sets a needed template for national housing policy reform as part of a needed package to repair Britain’s broken housing market. This requires the effective direct deflating of land values and a reduction in developer profit margins. But by the same token it is concerned that its intentions to be achieved requires similar reinforcing strategic policy reform at the national level, without which there is a possible danger of a developer ‘strike’ occurring at London-level as the largest housebuilders/developers migrate to locations where they can continue to enjoy excess super-profits. Cross party support for a sustainable reform – based on a credible and sustainable tailored incremental approach – is again a pre-requisite for the effective implementation of the needed package of reforms”.
The driving principle of 2017 SPG to close the gap between existing use and developed land value across all planning authorities should now be extended nationally, but in a way cognisant with regional, sub-regional, and local housing market characteristics and values, where necessary. In some lower value areas an EUV+ of, say, 30%, could, unlike London, render specific affordable housing thresholds almost superfluous.
In short, greater universality and consistency in ends and purpose at a national policy level, which allows a locally tailored treatment, rather than a uniform ‘one size fits all’ prescription, is required.
Such an extension and deepening of the principles of the 2017 SPG would directly reduce the cost of new housing: the root of the matter.
It would align along the line of current political least resistance to make the Section 106 process simpler, with greater certainty and transparency, making paramount the principle that the planning gain attributable to granting of residential planning permission should be recycled to the maximum possible extent to the provision of affordable housing and of supporting social infrastructure.
To take one example of that, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto (p41) committed a future Conservative government to ‘work with private and public sector house builders to capture the increase in land value created when they build to reinvest in local infrastructure, essential services and further housing, making it both easier and more certain that public sector landowners, and communities themselves benefit from the increase in land value from urban regeneration and development’, consistent with an overlapping political and technical consensus that the provision of affordable housing must be mainstreamed through measures that directly reduce the cost and price of housing and that blur the distinction between market and social housing, into both public and private business models.
The corollary is, of course, is that London political stakeholders should gravitate towards such a broad-based cross- party campaign given that London’s housing outcomes largely depend upon the national policy framework.
Whether any government, especially a Conservative one with strong links with the housebuilding industry with its now entrenched vested and lucrative private interests, would possess the will, focus, and strength of purpose to secure such a change, remains open to doubt. After all, not much has come from the 2017 manifesto pledge.
Perhaps, before long, political necessity will breed boldness to do what is right. The time for helping that moment along is now.
Promises to fund a sustainable and equitable social care system fit for a wealthy 21st century state, thus banishing remnants of a Victorian one reliant on a Poor Law welfare model, have been broken by successive governments.
On September 7 to redeem his pledge on entering Downing Street in July 2019, in effect, to finally ‘Get Social Care Done’, Boris Johnson announced his government’s intention to fund £36bn additional expenditure on health and social care expenditure over three years starting in April 2022, through a 1.25% increase in employee and employer national insurance (NI) rates.
Barely a week later the Commons had passed the necessary legislation with a 56-vote majority, with only ten Conservative MPs voting against.
By deploying political panache, has Johnson finally broken out of the social care circle to nowhere, or is his Plan a clever funding sleight of hand that will mainly offer piece of mind to wealthy homeowners concentrated in London and the sub-regions with the most buoyant economies and house prices, protecting the inheritances of their lucky heirs?
The devil of course, will depend, not only, as ever, on the backing detail of subsequent policy announcements but in the scope and nature of any future implementation process and subsequent funding support for social care.
What can be said now, is that Johnson’s Plan is largely confined to a new funding mechanism – the Health and Social Levy, operative from April 2023 – designed to meet his Party’s NHS pledges in the post-Covid environment, with a relaxation of social care means-testing combined with an introduction of a £86,000 cap on user lifetime contribution, tacked-on.
People with modest assets will remain at risk of losing most of their assets and possibly even their home if they need long-term residential care. Transferring the primary payment burden to working households through a payroll levy on earnings received by employees and paid by employers is economically sub-optimal and distributionally unfair compared to alternative sources including income tax.
In that light, this extended post first provides background to Johnson’s Plan, before going on to link its provisions, as they are currently known, to their expected efficiency and equity impacts.
It then considers the implications for future reform within the wider political context set by the real fiscal crisis of the state: that is the structural need and demand for social expenditures has and will continue to outstrip political (based on electoral) willingness to pay, without shifts in political methodology and electoral engagement.
Finally, the scope and space that Johnson’s Plan potentially provides such a needed shift is discussed.
The social care system in outline
Social care is the name given to the range of care and support services to help frail and disabled people to remain independent, active, and safe – for example, help with getting out of bed, bathing, and preparing cooked meals, and getting necessary medication, provided in a residential care home or at home (domiciliary) setting.
It is a local authority responsibility, generally discharged through the commissioning of services from independent care providers. For-profit providers account for 83% of the care home beds and the voluntary sector a further 13%, with the remaining 4% of care home beds run by local government or the NHS. Readers are signposted for further information to the briefing and the bibliography produced this month by the House of Commons library.
The focus of this post following Johnson’s Plan is on care for the elderly, but sight should not be lost that adult social care is not just or even primarily about older people. Demand for support from working-age adults has increased more than twice as rapidly as from pensioners – partly due to falling mortality rates and medical advances: the life expectancy for someone with Down’s syndrome, for instance, has almost tripled over the last four decades. The provision and funding of care for people of working-age must be ‘fixed’ as completely as much it must for older people.
In the past councils used to provide residential care in its own homes and staff until limitations on available capital and funding availability encouraged a shift to private providers who could raise capital easier and convert or purpose-build homes.
Between 1980 and 2018 the number of local authority residential care beds fell from 141,719 to 17,100; during much of the same period, the number beds provided by independent providers (whether owned by the largest private equity-owned providers, housing associations or charities) increased to 243,000 from 76,811.
In recent decades the care home industry has also consolidated. Four private companies owned by private equity or hedge fund investors now dominate the market. They and other entrants into the market were attracted by favourable demographics and property valuations – at least in London and south-east and other sub-regions benefiting from buoyant property prices – and a revenue stream underpinned by state funding.
This encouraged some over-expansion funded by debt, leading to Southern Cross going bust in 2011 and the then-largest provider, Four Seasons, having to be rescued by another private equity purchaser in 2019.
Squeezed LA fees and increased staffing costs exert significant headwinds. These are likely to grow in intensity along with pressures to improve the pay and conditions of frontline care staff in post-Covid and Brexit-environments marked by staff shortages and growing vacancies.
The annual cost per person in residential home sits generally in the £30,000 to £50,000 range, depending on level of care/nursing support provided and location.
About half of the £15-20bn income in the social care industry still comes from the state, with the remainder paid by self-funded residents, who can pay more than 40% more than LA-funded residents.
A feature of the industry is that such funders, in effect, cross-subsidise LA-funded residents. A 2016 Competition and Markets Report (which also provides substantial background, albeit not up-to-date, information) advising an average differential of £236 a week (over £12,000 a year).
In outline, the essential features of the current means-tested funding system are:
- Care home residents with capital exceeding £23,250 (the upper capital limit) are not eligible for any local authority funding support. They must pay all their costs above that limit;
- Care home residents with capital between £14,250 (the lower capital limit) and £23,250 (the upper capital limit) are eligible for funding support, but must contribute a ‘tariff income’ of £1 per week for every full or part £250 their assets above the lower limit, towards the cost of their care;
- Care home residents with capital below £14,250 are eligible for full funding support and are not charged any ‘tariff income’: their capital is effectively completely disregarded;
- The non-mortgaged value of the person’s home (housing equity) is not counted as an asset if a spouse or dependent also lives in the home, nor is the value of the home counted towards any means-tested assessment of individual contribution to domiciliary care;
- A person eligible for local authority funding support is also required to contribute part of their income towards the cost of their care, whether residential or domiciliary; subject to any earnings or other disregards, including an amount each week for personal expenses and (if applicable) household bills, called the Personal Expenses Allowance for people receiving residential care; and the Minimum Income Guarantee for people receiving domiciliary care;
- There is no cap on the lifetime care costs, which are thus unlimited beyond the upper capital limit of £23,250; meaning that an individual needing residential care or long-term support can pay thousands of pounds for care over their lifetime: even to the point of expending their assets to the point that they, or more usually their family ultimately need to resort to selling their home on their behalf.
In the words of the Resolution Foundation’s, Torsten Bell: “The cap stops you losing your house, the floor stops you losing everything”.
The lower capital (asset) limit of £14,250 can be considered as the ‘absolute floor’ below which no individual care contribution (other than for personal expenses payable out of pension or other income) is required, rather akin to the personal tax allowance on which income tax is not payable.
Contributions are then levied on a sliding scale until the upper capital (asset) of £23,250 is reached, above which contributions on assets are, in effect, then charged at a 100% marginal rate with no cap or upward limit.
A low limit or floor on the asset (capital) above which user contributions are required is thus combined with a lack of a cap on total lifetime expenditure limiting liability.
It is estimated that one in seven households needing care for long term severe disability (due to dementia, for example) must sell their home to pay for their residential care or spend more than £100,000 on care in total.
The NHS and Social care: siblings in name only
The NHS and social care provision and funding systems could not be much more different.
NHS treatments for both chronic and acute medical treatments, including emergency treatments for catastrophic events such as accidents, heart attack or strokes, are free at point-of-use, as are elective treatments, General Practitioner (GP) and out-patient services.
Provision and access across the board is rationed by available budgets, human and other resources, and policy guidelines assessed with reference to clinical need.
UK-wide tax subvention predominately funds the NHS with a variable quarter met by an annual transfer from the National Insurance Fund secured from employer and employee contributions.
The secular trend of health expenditure has been inexorably upwards during the last fifty years in annual real increase and in ratio of total public spending and GDP terms.
Unpicking the first outturn indicator, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) in a 2019 commentary reported that UK public spending on health grew in real terms by an average annual rate of 3.6% between 1949−50 and 2018−19, but lower than 1.5% during the post-2010 fiscal austerity years.
Annual outturn expenditure often exceeded the budgeted planned allocation, as governments topped up health spending to meet particularly acute emergent demand and other pressures that could not be accommodated within allocated budgets.
Social care is local authority funded, accounting for over half of the total spending of many councils.
The local authority sector was the worst affected by post-2010 fiscal austerity. Adult social care spending per person was 7.5% lower in real-terms in 2019–20 than 2009–10, with reductions concentrated in the 2011-16 period.
Central government financial support is provided to cover the annual general expenditure of individual councils, not their social care activity specifically. Revenue support grant is based on an assessment of the ability of each council to meet local needs from its own council tax base, itself subject on residential property valuations frozen since 1992. Some councils had their grant allocations slashed by as much as 65%.
Council tax levels levied locally for many decades have also have been subject to strict centrally imposed limits.
Since April 2016, councils have been empowered to raise an additional dedicated social care precept of up to 3% without needing to call a referendum; additional time-limited specific grants in support of their adult social care activity were also allocated centrally. These measures of limited amelioration were widely recognised, however, as papering over the cracks caused by the deep and wider Whitehall squeeze on local authority funding.
At an individual level, social care provision is severely means-tested. As the preceding section outlined, it is only free for people possessing assets less than the lower capital limit of £14,250 in value (termed here: the lower absolute floor), with individuals needing residential care required to pay all costs when their assets (including their housing equity) exceed the upper asset threshold of £23,250 (termed here: the upper floor).
Yet when people become older and frailer, the distinction between the medical and social care dimensions of their situation tends to blur to the point of indistinguishability.
Health expenditures, according to a September 2016 Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) report, at constant 2020-21 prices rise slowly and steadily from an average per capita c£1,500 for cohorts of people in their mid-forties, before doubling in the 60’s cohort to c£4,000, then doubling again to over £8,000 for cohorts in their late eighties and later (Chart 2.3).
The OBR report, with the relevant literature generally, highlights that proximity to death is a more important influence on health spending than is age, per se: hospital costs increase significantly in the final months of life for an average individual regardless of their age; a higher proportion of older age cohorts will be subject to the much higher costs associated with the final months of life when it can occurs regardless of age.
In need and demand terms, the chance catastrophic curse of dementia and other age-related disabilities have and will continue to affect more and more people as the population ages: according to the Office of National Statistics, the proportion of the over 75s within the UK population doubled since 1967; looking forward, the number of over 85s is projected to double again over the next 20 years.
These are events that individuals cannot predict (other than indirectly through genetic history or indirect markers), prevent, or plan for through insurance (theoretical possible, but no such market currently exists) or other means.
The need and case for reform has been clear and urgent for decades.
Social Care reform: Waiting for Godot
Spasmodic efforts over the decades by governments of varied hues to introduce reform to address that gaping hole in welfare state protection were nullified by subsequent procrastination and inaction.
Speaking to the Labour Party Conference that followed his historic 1997 election victory, Tony Blair declared that: “I don’t want [our children] brought up in a country where the only way pensioners can get long term care is by selling their home“. In accordance with his government’s manifesto promise, a Royal Commission was established, which in 1999 recommended (with minority member dissent) that: “all long-term personal care should be provided free, funded from general taxation”.
Its proposals, other than that nursing care in nursing homes would be made free (funded by the NHS), were soon kicked into the long grass: the cost was considered counter to the New Labour’s fiscal commitments and other priorities. Only the newly devolved Scottish administration in 2002 introduced free personal care in 2002.
A 10-year hiatus followed, marked much more by talk than action. Green Papers, policy, and official and independent review announcements grappled (unsuccessfully) mainly with issues centred on the development of the personalisation of care and the development of individual care budgets.
Then a ‘Big Care Debate’ (rather echoing the ‘Great Education debate’ that then prime minister James Callaghan launched in 1978) was conducted in 2009.
That year, Andy Burnham, the-then Secretary of State for Health did publish proposals for a ‘national care service’. They, however, failed to get cross party-political traction (now needed that New Labour electoral hegemony was clearly waning and uncertain): the compulsory contribution funding model that he advanced proved a sticking point in the lead-in period to an imminent general election.
Nonetheless, a White Paper, Building the National Care Service, was published just before that 2010 general election.
It committed Labour to establish another commission “to help to reach consensus on the right way of financing a National Care Service… that will be led by local authorities, in partnership with the NHS, and working with third sector organisations, the private sector and communities… which will meet the needs of people when they need help, free when they need it (that) will be for all – whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your circumstances”.
That ambitious rhetorical reach was accompanied with the rider that new service would need to be built ‘in stages’ within a context set by needed ‘fiscal consolidation’.
After Labour lost power at that election, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government asked Andrew Dilnot, Oxford economist and former Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) director, to chair another commission, with a remit to deliver an affordable and sustainable funding system or systems for care and support for all adults in England (Dilnot).
Dilnot published in 2011. It declared that “Our system of funding of care and support is not fit for purpose, and has desperately needed reform for many years”, accompanied with the clarion call: “Now is the time to act”.
That call was underpinned by a systematic and evidenced reform agenda. Its core proposals were:
- Individual lifetime contributions towards social care costs capped to between £25,000 and £50,000; £35,000 was the posited “most appropriate and fair figure” for that lifetime contribution cap (the cap);
- The means-tested upper asset threshold (the upper floor), above which people are liable for their full care costs, to be increased from the then (and still current) £23,250 to £100,000;
- Individuals possessing financial and/or housing assets between £14,250 (lower asset threshold or absolute floor) and the proposed new £100,000 upper floor, to pay a contribution (around 30% of eligible assets) towards their residential care, with the state paying the remainder;
- Local councils to decide how much care is needed and its cost in each individual case;
- The cost ‘meter’ on individual contributions would then start until contributions of each individual reach the prescribed lifetime contribution cap; then it would stop, save that residential care residents should incur a charge for on-going ‘hotel and food costs’, capped at £7,000-£10,000 per year;
- Councils to assume that people funding procuring privately provided care themselves will spend the same amount as someone publicly supported but possessing the same needs;
- The means-tested threshold for home care to disregard the value of the recipient’s home, with individuals needing such care to continue to receive income means-tested support;
- People born with a care and support need or who develop one in early life should immediately become eligible for free state support to meet their care needs, not subject to any means test;
- National eligibility criteria and portable need assessments to be introduced to ensure greater consistency of treatment.
In short, Dilnot’s proposals kept the capital means-test absolute floor personal allowance at £14,250, but greatly extended the range of income in which individuals qualified for partial support from £23,250 to £100,000, within which a proportional 30% charge would be levied on their capital assets, until a £35,000 lifetime contribution cap reduced their marginal contribution or tax rate to nil.
Dilnot’s analysis and proposals attracted general approval. Such approbation did not translate into effective and timely legislative action, however: it took four years for the Coalition government to enact the 2014 Care Act – and then largely at the instigation of Lord’s cross benchers and again on the cusp of another general election.
When the Conservatives won that election in 2015 with an overall working majority, it then postponed indefinitely the implementation (including legal backing for a £72,000 cap) of the Act’s provisions, for reasons connected to the continuing period of fiscal austerity presided over by the chancellor, George Osborne.
When Theresa May went to the polls in May 2017 in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum that had forced David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister, and with George Osborne also gone, her ‘strong and stable government’ election banner, to all intents and purposes was torn down by the half-thought-for social care plans that she then chose to highlight (at the behest of key advisers wanting to broaden Conservative appeal to northern working class voters) during the campaign.
The upper asset threshold or floor below which councils pay for all or part of a person’s social care was to be raised from £23,250 to £100,000, but that Dilnot proposal was yanked together to the inclusion of the housing equity asset worth of homeowners still living in and needing care at home into the capital means test calculation, as it is for people receiving residential care (which did not follow Dilnot).
To soften that pill, the facility for people receiving residential or nursing home to have the cost of their care taken from their estate after their death (deferred) was extended to people receiving care at home.
May’s proposals were quickly dubbed the ‘dementia tax’.
They meant that individuals would receive state support towards their needed social care costs if they possessed less than £100,000 of financial and property assets.
But once that £100,000 upper capital limit was passed the marginal withdrawal rate would become 100% (all care costs to be met by the individual receiving care form their capital where not met by income). That would mean that a person, for instance, with savings of £10,000 and housing equity of £200,000– would, in the absence of a cap, potentially faced losing most or all their assets, save for the £14,250 allowed for by the absolute floor.
That is because everyone possessing more than £100,000 assets and receiving care would then face a marginal contribution or withdrawal rate of 100% on their assets once the new £100,000 upper capital threshold was passed instead of, as they currently do under the current system, £23,250.
It would also have meant that people possessing moderate, but not insignificant, assets, greater than £23,250 but less £100,000 in residential care, would have – subject to the detail of the scheme if it had been progressed (such as the absolute floor level and the rate of withdrawal levied between £23,500 and £100,000) would have paid less.
Take, for instance if a 30% contribution or withdrawal rate was levied between £14,250 and £100,000; then someone receiving care in a residential home owning £100,000 of assets would have paid a maximum of c£26,000 under May, compared to potentially c£80,000 under the current system.
But faced with a furore, Mrs May soon retreated, talking about introducing a cap ‘at a level to be proposed in a future Green Paper’. Her proposals were already effectively dead, however. They are a widely considered to have contributed to the subsequent reduction of the Conservative overall majority to six.
The inclusion of housing equity into the asset means-test for home care was puzzling.
The equalisation of the application of the asset means-test between recipients of residential and home care was advanced as justification; yet the latter is more supportive of independent living and by its nature is less expensive to the public purse.
It also served (disastrously) to focus attention on that people receiving home-based or residential care could potentially much of their housing equity, and away from the keystone proposal of a near fivefold increase in the means-tested upper capital floor threshold: hardly an astute or indeed helpful piece of political presentation.
Shell-shocked by the experience and embroiled in the Brexit saga that finally sunk her premiership, social care reform was put again on the Whitehall backburner.
Then the day after becoming prime minister in July 2019, Boris Johnson, elected Conservative party leader by his MPs and party membership on a ‘Get Brexit done’ platform, declared in front of his new home, 10 Downing Street, that he would also fix “the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan (that) we have prepared”, with legislation to follow that year, so that “nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it”.
Johnson’s Social Care Plan
It was not until 8 September 2021 that his government published its plans in the command paper: Build Back Better: Our Plan for Health and Social Care (the Plan), which proposed:
- A lifetime contribution cap on personal care costs of £86,000 (using the powers available in the 2014 Care Act) to be introduced from October 2023. On reaching that cap, people receiving care will no longer be required to make any contribution towards their care from either their income or capital;
- The upper capital limit (the threshold above which somebody is not eligible for local authority support towards their social care costs) to rise from £23,250 to £100,000, operative from October 2023 (the threshold limit for each member of a couple to be £50,000);
- Lower capital limit (the lower asset threshold or absolute floor below which no contribution towards care costs from capital is required) to rise from £14,250 to £20,000;
- People with capital (assets) between £20,000 and £100,000 to contribute up to 20% of their chargeable assets per year (in addition to their income);
- The capital means test will be based on total assets, including both the value of a person’s home and their savings, except that for a person needing to continue to live in their own home their housing equity – as under the current system- will be excluded from the assessment of total chargeable assets (the housing disregard).
- The amount of income that care recipients can retain after contributing towards their care costs (the Minimum Income Guarantee and the Personal Expenses Allowance) to be increased in line with inflation from April 2022 onwards.
In short and simplified form, from October 2023 onwards, anyone with assets or savings worth less than £20,000 will receive full state support; anyone with assets worth between £20,000 to £100,000 who cannot pay for their care from their income will become eligible for capital-means tested help with their care costs up to a 20% proportional charge on their eligible assets until the overarching £86,000 cap is reached when their liability to meet costs form either their income or capital ends.
Applying the tax analogy applied earlier, the personal capital allowance is increased to £20,000; a 20% contribution, withdrawal or ‘tax’ rate is applied on capital asset wealth between £20,000 and £100,000, subject to an absolute cap lifetime contribution rate of £86,000, beyond which the marginal tax rate on both income and capital then drops to zero.
The Plan was both incomplete and lopsided insofar that any detail on future care provision was largely absent. It was also not rooted from consultation with the public or private providers of care, nor meshed with medium and long-term costings of funding requirements related to a minimum-defined standard of care provided regardless of postcode, nor were alternative delivery options calibrated to a future wider care vision.
It ringfences only £5.4bn of the £36bn to be raised from the NI increase for social care funding (£1.8bn cf. to the annual £12bn-plus proceeds of the NIC increase). The rest will go to the NHS. Although the Plan expresses a weak and unconfident hope that that limited share “could possibly increase towards the end of the three-year 2022-25 period”, the additional future allocations required for the establishment of a fit for purpose client responsive care system are clearly contingent on the prevailing NHS funding situation.
The scale of the Covid-related backlog combined with continuing rising costs and the rising real demand profile of the NHS (estimated to require annual real increases in expenditure of c4% per annum to accommodate) means that the social care sector can expect a continuing long wait for their release.
More Waiting for Godot, then – at least unless significant new funding is made available for social care on top of what the Plan currently proposes.
The Plan is indeed and instead predicated upon local councils continuing to meet demographic and unit cost pressures through council tax and other receipts, and from ‘long-term efficiencies’.
This is within a funding environment where the overall level of local government funding (which will impact upon level of the total level of revenue that each council can raise) is to be determined ‘in the round’ in the forthcoming Autumn 2021 Spending Review (para36).
To all intents and purposes that will be driven by Treasury-driven pressures to close the unprecedented Covid-related fiscal deficit. The fiscally hawkish chancellor, Rishi Sunak, wants to cut the deficit from 12% per cent of GDP in 2020-21 to 4.5% in 2022-23: a big ask, dependent on the economy bouncing back both sharply and sustainably, and one that almost inevitably will rule out additional borrowing for either health or social care purposes.
Social care will consequently continue to be provided by councils in England subject to constrained annual funding allocations and to restrictions on their council tax revenue-raising capacity.
On the expenditure side, care costs are almost certain to rise faster than inflation, with care worker vacancies over 100,000 and rising, during a period when the backlog of care cases, as estimated by Age Concern, could reach 1.5m. Under the government’s plan self-funders will also be able to ask their council to arrange their care to ‘help them find better value’.
It is also doubtful that without dedicated training and other investment in human skill capacity and conditions that sufficient trained and motivated staff will be available to meet a growing level of future demand need, whether that is derived from the government’s plans, a loosening of rationing constraints, or from demographics. Most care worker vacancies in the recent past have been taken by migrants; this is unlikely to be possible without modification to current post-Brexit immigration policy. Given such a backdrop, it remains to be seen whether the £500m included in the Plan to support social care workforce-related reforms will prove sufficient.
Is the Plan, therefore, a mere political presentational sop to its core Conservative over 65 and homeowner voter constituency, and, as such, subject to a high risk of future unravelling when buffeted by future on-the-ground reality?
The centrepiece £86,000 cap figure is certainly suggestive of Treasury penny-pinching, which does not augur well for the securing of sustainable funding for a future and sustainable client-centred and responsive social care service.
At a distributional equity level, suffers from two, paradoxically, linked problems. First, a cap means that once reached represents a ‘cliff’ that when crossed means liability (or put another way, the its marginal tax rate) becomes zero; and, second, the £86,000 proposed cap is set high enough to still wipe out or take out a substantial proportion of the housing wealth of homeowners residing in low house-price areas, including many in Red Wall seats, breaching Johnson’s manifesto promise.
Both can be traced back to Dilnot. The fundamental problem is that a cap by definition does not rise proportionately or progressively with housing asset wealth, either at an individual or regional level: a shortcoming that has been compounded by subsequent and regionally skewed housing asset inflation.
Back in 2011, Dilnot had noted that someone who had lifetime care costs of £150,000 could lose up to 90% of their accumulated wealth, before asserting that the report’s proposed combination of a £35,000 lifetime contribution cap and an extended means test floor would ensure instead that no one going into residential care would have to spend more than 30% of their assets on their care costs (Dilnot termed this as the asset depletion rate; used interchangeably in this post with contribution, withdrawal, or ‘tax’ rate).
Yet that still presented a distributional equity problem shown in Table 1: the asset depletion rate peaks for households possessing around an initial £100,000 asset stock (product of the c30% contribution applied on assets applied above the £14,250 absolute floor up to the £100,000 upper floor, before dropping sharply regressively as asset wealth rises), begging the equity-based based question of the fairness of taking c30% of the the assets of homeowners of modest assets when a lower proportionate and capped share is taken from more asset-rich households.
|Initial level of wealth||Maximum individual spend on care||Maximum asset depletion rate|
Source: Author adaptation of table that was included in Dilnot Policy Paper
As it stands, the Plan’s £86,000 cap is set high enough to risk some homeowners living in low house price areas, or in retired person or leasehold accommodation that have lost capital value over the last ten years, who need residential care accommodation, to still lose their homes. It will also heavily impact upon tenants reliant that have some but modest financial savings assets, especially such individuals receiving care at home; it thus discriminates in favour of those with housing equity rather than financial asset wealth.
The incidence of user contributions, as Table 2 indicates, under the Plan will in future peak for people requiring residential care who possess assets within the £150,000-£175,000 range (incurring an asset depletion rate of nearly 50% – compared to the Dilnot 30% level); incidence (the maximum depletion rate) then falls becoming ever more sharply regressive for people with housing equity or other wealth above that level, noting that apparently as many as one-fifth of those aged 65 or above now own more than £1,000,000 in assets compared to the c.£300,000 average asset wealth of someone aged 65.
|Initial level of wealth||Maximum individual spend on care||Maximum asset depletion rate|
End results are more clearly perverse and inequitable under Johnson’s Plan: someone with £175,0000 worth of assets might have to pay £20,000 more than a neighbour with £150,000, but the same £86,000 as someone owning £1,000,000 or £2,000,000, while the ‘average’ pensioner owning £300,000 assets will lose a lower proportion of their assets than someone owning less than half of that, but a much higher proportion than asset millionaires needing long-term care.
A recent Conservative Chancellor, Stephen Hammond, put the message that it partly conveys – slightly paraphrased – thus: “we are asking lower income workers, such as supermarket shelf fillers, to subsidise the inheritances of affluent homeowners”. Put another way, the Plan caters more for the future financial interest and peace of mind of the voters of Amersham and Chesham that it does for their counterparts in Consett.
That takes us to how the Plan will be paid for: its centrepiece.
The Health and Social Care Levy (the Levy)
For the 2022-23 year only:
Employee National Insurance Contributions (NIC’s) on earnings and employer NICs (both Class 1) on earnings paid, and self-employed (Class 4) NICs charged on their trading profits will increase by 1.25%, which will mean that:
- Employee NICs will be levied at a 13.75% rate between the current NIC £9,564 lower earnings and the £50,268 upper thresholds; earnings above the upper threshold will attract a rate of 3.25%.
- Employer NICs will be levied at a 15.5% rate on employee earnings above £8,840.
- Self Employed Class 4 contributions on profits will be levied at a 10.25% rate on trading profits above £9,568; and 3.25% on trading profits above £50,270; self employed weekly flat rate Class 2 NIC contributions (set at £3.05) are unchanged.
The Plan also includes a 1.25% increase on the tax levied on company dividend income (when received outside the tax free wrappers of Individual Saving Accounts (ISA) and Self-Invested Personal Pensions (SIPPS), and the first £2000 of dividend income received outside these wrappers). It is expected to contribute £600m a year within the total £12bn raised for health and social purposes (£13.2bn in total, minus £1.8bn compensation paid to public sector employers for their NIC increase).
From April 2023, the NICs above will revert to their former 2021-22 levels but the increase of 1.25% on the rates levied above the lower and upper thresholds will be collected separately and additionally under the umbrella of a dedicated Health and Social Care Levy, provided with its own legislative status and dedicated line on employee pay slips.
23% of families in England contain someone above the SPA. Even when the social care levy is applied on earnings received by people over the SPA, the IFS reported on 7 September that only about 2% of its total revenue from the Levy will come from pensioner families, compared to the 14% share that they would contribute from an increase in income tax yielding the same level of revenue.
This is largely because NICs, unlike income tax, is a payroll tax that is not levied on state or private pension income (when received at whatever age) – the predominant pensioner income source. Nor is it levied on certain categories of investment income, including property income, such as from buy-to-lets and share dividends.
People above the State Pension Age (SPA), not in employment, will thus escape any additional contribution (save for the dividend tax increase, if applicable to them), despite them belonging to the demographic with both the highest average wealth levels and the one most likely to need social care, at least in the short-to-medium term.
Compared to the employee NIC schedule, the income tax schedule also contains more progressive rate bands. Its basic rate of 20% begins to take effect only once individual taxable income exceeds the £12,750 personal allowance; the employee NIC lower earnings threshold is lower at £9,564.
That divergence means that people on very low annual earnings, including those on the national minimum wage, can pay more in NIC than they do in tax, or pay NIC even though they are not liable for tax.
The Levy’s tax burden (incidence) will fall overwhelmingly therefore upon working age employees and employers; this is in accord with the long-term trend for the tax burden to shift towards people of working age and away from pensioners; secular trend not offset by new liability for working pensioners to pay the Levy.
A working-age person with average pre-pandemic earnings (£28,388) will pay 20% of their income in income tax, NICs, and the new levy; a pensioner receiving the same amount in pension income will pay just 11%: almost half the rate of the working-age employee.
That secular trend has been paralleled by a reinforcing one of untaxed – save for limited inheritance tax and capital gains tax liability on sales of non-primary residence homes – individual real housing wealth growing greatly to the particular benefit of wealthy pensioners and their heirs.
Working households spend a higher proportion of their net income than do wealthy pensioners and as the NIC increase differentially impacts on working households more than would an equivalent revenue-raising income tax rise, its overall downward impact across the economy on take home pay, consumption and employment, all other things being equal, will be higher, so constraining the future profits and investment capacity of firms and earnings of working age individuals.
The increased NIC employer contribution rate will likewise add pressure on firms to adjust prices upwards and wages downwards, especially in competitive sectors inhabited by small businesses whose labour costs account for a high proportion of their total costs. Such businesses often employ low paid workers (the employer NIC rate of 13.8% is levied above a very low annual threshold of £8,860, except for employees aged under 21 or for apprentices aged under 25).
Another horizontal inequity (different outcomes for different groups with otherwise the same income circumstances) associated with the Plan is that the combined NICs rate on employment income (including employer NICs) will rise from 25.3% to 28.8% compared to a rise from 9% to 10.25% for a self-employed worker: an increase of 3% rather than 1.5%.
This will widen the relative tax benefit of self-employment arrangements – which are often designed to minimise tax liability relative to PAYE working – and thus can be expected to induce perversely behavioural changes tending to reduce total revenue raised.
Overall, therefore, according to a range of independent commentators, Johnson’s choice to raise revenue through an NIC in preference to an income tax increase will prove both economically deleterious and socially inequitable compared to what could have been the case with possible revenue-raising alternatives.
That said, recognition is due that given the political obstacles that Johnson faced in raising the equivalent amount in tax or borrowing, his recourse to the third best (or even fourth best if additional borrowing is included) NIC funding route in preference to wealth and the income tax rises, was probably necessary, while its political execution and management was efficient and effective.
That brings us around the underlying problem, of which the current health and social care crisis and Johnson’s Care Plan belated and imperfect response to it is simply a symptom.
Social Care and the Real Fiscal Crisis of the State
Johnson’s Plan required him to explicitly jettison his personal (made in the signed foreword titled Boris Johnson’s Guarantee) Conservative Party 2019 manifesto commitment not to raise the rate of income tax, VAT or national insurance.
That core Conservative principle since 2015, his fix NHS funding and social care commitments and the chancellor’s deficit reduction intentions, proved irreconcilable.
Essentially, the Levy is a new tax raising mechanism to raise and earmark an amount equivalent to around 0.5% of GDP first and foremost to close the endemic NHS funding gap.
That latest gap, which while grossly aggravated by the Covid pandemic, stemmed from earlier Conservative austerity under-funding.
Health spending, after adjusting for the growth and ageing of the population, stayed broadly flat between 2009−10 and 2016−17, before rising over the three years to 2018−19, remembering that average real increases throughout that decade was c1.5%, well below the post-war average annual real increase outturn of 3.6%.
That below trend outcome may have been been sufficient to meet demographic pressures, according to commentators, but it was not enough to also meet all the other upward ‘relative price’ pressures (such as, new medical technology and treatments, and as a labour-intensive industry: wage pressures) that continuously characterise the NHS.
The real focus and purpose of Johnson’s Plan is to provide a mechanism to secure additional funding for the NHS to overcome record waiting lists and other pressures that Covid and previous underfunding bequeathed: an electoral imperative.
That the Levy can also possibly part-fund his social care pledge is but a collateral secondary benefit: the commitment of his chancellor to accelerate closing the fiscal deficit and reducing public debt would have otherwise precluded its progression.
Johnson and his advisers calculated that the chosen NIC funding-is more electorally palatable than a direct income tax increase: the erroneous post-Beveridge perception lingers that NICs constitute a social insurance contribution paid by working people to pay for their pension and NHS care and other ‘hard times’ contingencies from accumulated contributions (never true from the outset of the post war welfare state). Employer NICs and their indirect and delayed impact on take home earnings and consumer price levels are also far less visible in their effects on take home pay than is an income tax hike.
In that he followed a path previously trodden by Labour: in 2002, when New Labour chancellor Gordon Brown raised national insurance rates to boost NHS spending (but on a temporary time-limited basis during a period when waiting lists had reached record levels) it was apparently seen in Treasury circles as ‘the most popular tax rise in history’, when it was then, as it is now, a relatively regressive imposition compared to an equivalent income tax rise.
The UK does not have an embedded continental-style part social insurance welfare state funding model: it has a pay-as-you-go model contingent on short-term political decisions, rather belied by the fact that in 2020-21, national insurance raised c£147bn, more than VAT at 128bn, and not that much less than the total £198bn raised that year from income tax.
Pensions accounted for £101.bn, nearly two-thirds of NI receipts that year. As the the new state pension is dependent on a 35-year contribution record, to state that NI is simply another tax is not entirely accurate. But other benefits are only loosely related to the contribution record of recipient individuals; in any case, they do not provide an adequate replacement of previous employment income nor necessarily provide one above the poverty line. Each year the amount raised by NI generally exceeds often substantively that paid out in benefits, explaining why a variable quarter-odd can be transferred to support health expenditure for which there is no state insurance scheme.
The NHS, as noted in an earlier section, is predominately funded from other general taxation sources, and social care from a mix of local authority and user own funds.
The final total that individuals can be obligated to pay towards their lifetime social care has been, is, and will remain under Johnson’s Plan potentially prone to chance catastrophic events outside their control: quite contrary to the founding principles of national insurance and the welfare state.
One of the core overarching themes of ASocialDemocraticFuture is that the structural need and demand for social expenditures has and will continue to outstrip political (based on electoral) willingness to pay: that is without shifts in political methodology and electoral engagement: the real fiscal crisis of the state (the crisis).
The Conservative enshrined self-denying ordinance on raising income tax, NICs, or VAT was just the most extreme and obvious case in point of that crisis, reflecting earlier New Labour practice.
The resulting reliance on stealth taxes such as insurance premium tax, or more materially on failing to align tax thresholds with inflation (fiscal drag) so steadily bringing steadily more people into the higher tax bands are both its consequences and symptoms (it is estimated that 1.3m new and 1m higher rate taxpayers will result from the 2020 Budget decision to freeze tax allowances from 2022-23 for the remainder of this parliament). Cross-party local competition to freeze annual tax council levies, whether practised by Conservative shire or Corbynite metropolitan councils, another.
The public policy and funding neglect of the social care sector – related to the weak political voice of its users – cannot be divorced from the massive contribution that care homes made to Covid-related excess deaths: the most shameful and shocking consequence of the crisis, but others, such as inhumane conditions in prisons, inadequate and dangerous mental health services, and cuts in care support for vulnerable young people and youth outreach work, generating death or serious harm, provide obvious other examples.
Put into a wider international context, Britain’s social expenditures remain relatively low to European norms as a proportion of national income – the overall UK tax burden (with the Health and Social Care Levy included), expressed as a per cent of national income is expected to reach 35.5% in 2023-24 with the Levy and the earlier Corporation Tax rise included; that compares with 39% in Germany and 40% in France (noting that definitional and compositional issues mean that the comparison is not strictly like-for like).
It is high, however, historically. A tax-take of 35.5 per cent of GDP would be the highest rate reached since 1950 at the height of the post war reconstruction drive.
The core structural problem is threefold. The level of social expenditures across some key areas, including health, and education, and, of course adult social care, are too low to attain universal standards compatible with individual human dignity and collective needs, in tune with the expectations of a population living in one of the world’s wealthiest advanced economies and one of its longest established welfare states.
Second, little apparent willingness exists within the electorate to action the trade-off between welfare state benefits received and taxes contributed. Benefits can be long-term and their costs not easily relatable to individual consumption or experience; a prime example is social care: the prospect of our future need for social care whether due to old age frailty or dementia is thrust to the very back of our minds; by the time it could be needed we will not be in a state of mind to calibrate what is being offered to our past tax and NI contributions.
Increases in tax, in sharp contrast, invariably result in tangible impacts upon household budgets in the the-here-and-now. Most of us might profess an abstract willingness to pay more for better services yet faced with a choice at election time to pay less or more in practice next year, the calculous of personal interest tends to take over.
Unsurprisingly, political parties vying for votes for power and presence within a competitive electoral market-place subject often to headline soundbites and headlines that can hide or distort the real facts, promise improvements in services but are less than forthcoming and honest about the how these are going to be paid for; or promise that both can be reconciled when they can’t; or even worse , simply ignore or put on the back burner needed reforms, such as to council tax or to social care.
During recent decades that reality has become an unassailable foundation of political principle and discourse, amply demonstrated.
The third, and end-result, is that the funding public services expenditures is not only insufficient and inefficient but inequitable in content and form, as are the taxes raised to pay for them in incidence and impact. Expediency, in short trumps both efficiency and equity.
It is no surprise therefore to this website that Johnson has not honoured yet his ‘fix social care’ pledge, resorting rather to a NIC funding presentational fix that will result in economically sub-optimal and unfair – and ultimately unsustainable – distributional outcomes.
That said, at many levels, the Levy does mark a potential crossing of the Rubicon in social and fiscal policy terms. Its scale and presumed period of imposition (at least three years, but permanency is implied by is dedicated legislative status) with its revenue ringfenced for health and social care expenditure purposes, define the clearest departure in tax public policy since the Thatcherite and subsequent New Labour repudiation of the alleged ‘tax and spend’ days of the full employment and welfare state post-war consensus era.
Whether Covid-enforced or not, Johnson’s government has unfurled the ‘party of low tax’ banner (never true for the majority, in contrast to the wealthy or high-income minority) from the Conservative pole, replacing it with one of ‘needs-must’ when events demand.
Well, what does that or might mean for the future shape of social democratic political process and outcome?
Politics and Social Democratic values (methodology) and social care reform
The future development of Johnson’s Plan into the medium- and long-term, including the Levy, will be contingent on the result of next election, expected anytime from 2023 onwards.
Labour, accordingly, will not necessarily have to identify a funding source to pay for a future need-based and sustainable social care system that it might offer to the electorate: it will already be there; that is unless the Levy is put in cold storage or NICs reduced before then on the ground that ‘improvements in the economy now allow for needed reduced tax burdens on working people’.
Labour could commit in government to re-distribute the Levy’s proceeds; or to replace it in full or part with an alternative and more equitable and economically efficient funding source, as part of a wider shift towards wealth and property-based co-payment taxation (where individuals and the state share contributions for defined purposes) without therefore necessarily having to increase the overall tax burden.
Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, has already slammed Johnson’s Levy as an unfair imposition on working people, but has declined to set out firmly Labour’s alternative. Other prominent Labour figures outside the shadow cabinet have been less shy.
Andy Burnham, the former New Labour Health Secretary and current Metro Mayor of Manchester, has led the way, arguing that: “The fairest way of providing social care is on NHS terms through a national care service, and the fairest way of raising the funding to pay for it is by taxing wealth, not work. The government should be looking at reforming taxes and reliefs on assets, land, pensions, property and excessive earnings and profits before hitting younger, low-paid workers with the bill”, before reprising an earlier decade-old “10% levy imposed on estates” proposal.
But that could have done by the Brown government of which he was a member. It wasn’t.
Labour did not propose funding social care in 2010 through increased taxes on wealth and property because of fears concerning their electoral impact and immediate practicability. That remains the case.
Wealth taxes are easier to prescribe than deliver in practice. They require the liquidation of assets, unless their payment is delayed until death or at time of asset transfer, or unless the rate levied is set low enough to be paid from current income, which would mean reduced coverage and yields unless its incidence was limited to the very rich; that then would suffer from problems of avoidance, and also limited yields.
A wider base embracing those, for instance, own housing equity exceeding a set threshold, rubs against the fundamental problem of how to treat the asset-rich but relatively income-poor pensioner and working families.
In the absence of a cross-party consensus – unlikely – an opposition party linking social care or other reforms to new taxes on people’s assets and homes that would make tangible inroads into the day-to-day budgets of households would invite almost certain electoral and policy defeat – at least in the absence of a compelling and understood engagement narrative that demonstrates and links enlightened self-interest at an individual voter level to economic and social rationality and fairness at the societal level.
No easy answers. The biggest elephant in the room is council tax, currently a property rather than wealth tax. It is demonstrably is unfair and inefficient both in incidence and in its impact on the housing market. Households in low price areas pay more both in absolute and proportionate terms than those residing in areas where average house values exceed £500,000.
An august range of independent bodies have called for reform for decades, most recently and clearly summarised in a Fairer Share campaign manifesto, endorsed by former Conservative Minister and current social policy activist, Lord David Willets. All, however, without moving the political dial seemingly an iota.
Such a ‘big bang’ reform would take time to implement, require transitional arrangements, and would be subject to cancellation by successor governments, even assuming a party proposing it as a flagship policy commitment rather than a vague aspiration was elected. Although a nil net cost reform would produce many more winners than losers, the crisis presupposes that such a far-reaching and substantive reform should result in greater fairness, efficiency and revenue, thus providing an opportunity – in the absence of cross-party consensus -for electoral competitors to paint it as a tax increase.
That, of course, further underscores the need, however, for a shift in political narrative and methodology concerning the link between social benefit and tax contribution.
Given the opening that Johnson’s Plan provides, variants of a housing and other asset levy calibrated to household total net housing equity and other financial asset wealth, which could be paid in lifetime instalments or delayed to when downsizing or death occurs, does seem to offer the most immediately opportune and fair way forward. Inevitably, however, it will attract the catchy ‘death tax’ epithet from opponents and media during the cut and thrust of an election campaign.
Certainly, a progressive levy on wealth would be patently fairer than either the current or the Johnson Plan arrangements, where individuals needing care face chance contingency.
But it would mean: ‘spend now: get the money to pay for it later’, requiring, meanwhile, the needed expenditure for health and social care reform to be met from other tax sources, or from borrowing. That is unless an institutional mechanisms could be established, perhaps with public guarantees, that transparently could allow the levy to be paid by variants of equity release mechanisms outside public borrowing totals.
Other variants of the same theme, could be to phase out the Levy, replacing it with a widened capital transfer tax covering primary residence transfers (the current exemption costs around £25bn to £30bn in taxation foregone), using the same justification that that wealth rather work is being taxed to provide better health and social care and security for all.
They would however involve inroads into family housing equity, with incidence falling on those who need or choose to move often – a problem that could mitigated perhaps, however, by a linked reduction in Housing Stamp Duty. Proceeds could then justifiably be ringfenced, not just for the funding of health and social care, but also for the mainstreaming of affordable housing into public and private sector provision models.
Or the Levy could be retained with its incidence recast within a wider alignment of NI and tax lower thresholds, as was promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.
Another tax relief currently costing around £25bn a year is pension contribution relief. That could undoubtedly be targeted better to the benefit of low- and middle-income earners, and transferred in part for health and social expenditure purposes.
What can be said with certainty is that the Labour opposition must set the debate and future agenda, meshing both it a values-led vision for the welfare state in general and health and social care. Now is the time or never.
In that light, the most relevant recent official pronouncement by the current Shadow Social Care Minister Liz Kendall in April 2021 , which, notwithstanding its worthy emphasis on “taking a ‘home-first’ approach by increasing the use of early help and technology to help people live independently for as long as possible and expanding the options between “care at home and at care homes”, tended to follow usual groove of generalised critique and future unspecific aspiration. Future efforts should be marked and developed through a detailed and broad-based strategy and policy development process, both within the party and with external stakeholders.
A successful and sustainable reform requires that it is rooted on a vision of what the future social care system should look like and its relationship with the NHS or whether, indeed, the NHS should become the National Health and Care System (NHCS); the total level of funding required over the medium-term to realise that vision; the possible share and implications of that total met by public and private sources (including user charges) with respect to both equity and efficiency drivers; and how minimum client-need based universal standards can be combined with user choice and provider innovation and flexibility.
Such an electoral and stakeholder policy engagement process would depart from the political mores or methodology that governments and parties have increasingly applied since the advent of New Labour times, one more dependent on tactical news-release and more recently occasional Twitter and like pronouncements.
A necessary and vital departure, however, not just for effective and sustainable social care reform, but for wider social democratic ends. Otherwise Johnson could well determine outcomes, for better or worse, over the next decade.
Christened by working class parents to commemorate the Labour founder, Keir Hardie, the young Starmer trod an upward mobile professional journey through grammar school, redbrick university, and Oxbridge into select Bar Chambers. Becoming a doughty legal defender of organised strikers, anti-capitalist campaigners and death row inmates, he then ‘took silk’ as a QC, providing a pathway to his appointment Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008 – an establishment role he excelled in, exhibiting rationality and competence tinged with radicalism.
Succeeding Frank Dobson – a former Health Secretary but unsuccessful first Labour London Mayoralty candidate – to the inner city, and still largely working class, safe seat of St.Pancras, Starmer quickly but quietly learnt his Westminster ropes. In October 2016, Jeremy Corbyn appointed him Shadow Brexit Secretary – an appointment based not on political affinity, but on a recognition that his skill profile best matched the requirements of the post, surmounting concerns within Corbyn’s inner circle that it would simply provide Starmer with a stage for a continuing audition for the top job.
Which it did. By far the most effective Shadow performer in the Commons, Starmer effectively critiqued the Brexit position of both May and Johnson governments. Elected Labour leader in April 2020 at the height of the first Covid wave, he soon established himself as a measured but effective leader of the opposition, whose gravitas contrasted sharply and favourably with both a Prime Minister almost habitually reliant on bluster and boosterism and with a predecessor invariably out of his depth at the dispatch box.
But doubts began to surface that Labour’s new leader, while brilliant at discharging a brief and in forensically unpicking an opponent’s case, lacked the ability to create and personify a political counter narrative that could resonate within, yet alone beyond, Westminster. It was also noted that his six Brexit tests and espousal of a ‘People’s Vote’ had proved counter-productive in political and economic outcome terms. After a honeymoon period, apart from taking the whip away from Corbyn, his leadership style was characterised by caution and indecision with a proclivity to tack to the prevailing wind of the day in a way that often smacked more of tactical opportunism than strategic vision.
Since 1945 only three Labour leaders, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair have won electoral power at Westminster – all following a long hiatus for Labour in Opposition. The first two did so not by dint of their personalities but rather by their ability to manage and to link a desire for change within the population, the last by a more presidential project that personified ‘New’ Labour’s colonisation of the centreground.
The December 2019 Tory capture of ‘Red Wall’ seats won with an enlarged working-class support base, along with the party’s practical collapse in Scotland, means that to become the fourth, Starmer – discounting a return of a substantial number of SNP seats in Scotland back to Labour – must secure the largest ever electoral swing that Labour has ever achieved in England of over 12% compared to 10.7% in 1945.
Has Starmer really got what it must take to overcome not only that unprecedented electoral challenge – likely to be compounded by boundary changes favouring the Conservatives – but also concurrently the immense structural social democratic wider political challenge of reconciling necessary fiscal and political responsibility with the accommodation of ever-rising rising demand and need for increased health, social care, and education social expenditure, on top of equitable social security reform – the true underlying fiscal crisis of the state – as well as the secular tendency for education and age rather than social class associational factors to determine voting behaviour, requiring the cultural and the economic to be ever finely balanced in political calculation.
In the short term, policy reviews and prescriptions can wait. Starmer must first build a sustainable value base that can support and illuminate a coherent overarching political strategy chiming with majority concerns covering affordable housing, quality neighbourhood schools, and the building safe and secure communities endowed with well-paid jobs, that some of the more thoughtful members of his Shadow Cabinet, like Rachel Reeves, have begun to build.
Starmer cannot recreate Blair’s presentational elan, but he can mesh such a strategic framework to his personal back story: the son of a disabled mother and toolmaker father who forged a successful career by hard work and application, subsequently marked by public service. He should dare the Mail and Telegraph to sneer at such an epitome of Middle England endeavour and aspiration for honest and in the scheme of things modest material reward.
Starmer as a person and Starmerism as a political project should be joined and projected, linking, by way of contrast, the entitlement and real elitism of the Prime Minister’s back story to his opportunistic and hollow ‘chancer’ policies.
A case in point is the Johnson’s government’s Levelling Up agenda. It relies upon a mix of big ticket and local bus depot-type infrastructural projects with thinly spread centrally determined funding-streams, themselves subject to manipulation for party political advantage. Starmer must seize as Labour’s own, the emerging overlapping consensus, manifested recently by Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane speaking on behalf of the soon to be defunct Industrial strategy council, that sustained local growth needs to be rooted in local strategies, covering not only infrastructure, but skills, sectors, education and culture, measured by defined understandable transformational outcomes: improved educational attainment and opportunity, the generation of new and well-paying jobs, and the spread and mainstreaming of affordable housing.
He will also need to tap an enlarged fiscal space for government borrowing, evidenced by Biden’s Stimulus and Climate Change Package, taking the opportunity to be both bold and lucky, as Johnson did to combine ‘ getting Brexit done’ with electoral success. Unlike Johnson, he also must be honest and straight-talking about linking future social benefit and justice to contribution. It is not just about the economy, but also about values and vision. The policies will follow.
Summary (added 29th July)
This is a detailed but personal narrative of the UK’s public policy response to Covid to the decision to lockdown on 23rd March.
Minutes and papers of the government’s main scientific advisory group (SAGE) are used along with subsequent parliamentary committees to investigate and analyse the claim made by some members of SAGE and other informed commentators that up to 25,000 of the 45,000-plus hitherto recorded deaths were avoidable.
It concludes that undue retrospective focus on the one week or more delay in the imposition of lockdown diverts from understanding , and acting to remedy the underlying causes of the UK’s (and England’s) high per capita Covid death rate: lack of government preparedness; of foresight; and of focused flexibility, manifested in the concentration of Covid-deaths within its care homes for the elderly as result of negligent acts of both commission and omission.
The last section uses international comparisons to highlight lessons to be learnt that simply put are: learn, learn, and learn; test, test, and test.
The first worldwide Covid case was confirmed on 31 December in Wuhan, a large inland Chinese provincial city, home to 11 million people. An animal-based virus had switched across to humans, probably via its under-regulated live food markets.
Dribs and drabs of information concerning its emergence and spread circulated but elicited little focused concern within the policy-making citadels of Europe and America. Many stockmarkets, apparently unperturbed that a pandemic might soon be unleashed and wreak economic havoc, continued to climb to near-record highs. Aviation traffic continued unabated.
Personally, I travelled from Kolkata in India – my wife’s family home – back to my London home on the 14th January to return to work, without a thought about Covid, then still known by the generic label, Coranavirus. Before long, like most of us, I was to learn much more.
The first public awareness watershed was Wuhan’s lockdown on January 23. This was imposed by the Chinese government to prevent the further propagation of the virus by city residents travelling for their Lunar New year celebrations. Many already had. Pictures percolated within mainstream media of deserted Wuhan streets. The opening of a 1000 bed pop-up hospital built in short scratch to relieve pressure on its locally overwhelmed health system briefly made the headlines in early February.
Yet all that was still over there; for most people still a distant and unknown continent: there was no suggestion, nor did it cross my mind, that London would begin to endure an even longer lockdown before March was out.
On 31 January – the same day that the UK exited the EU – Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer (and principal medical adviser to the UK government) confirmed the first Covid cases in England.
A few days earlier the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared Covid a public health emergency of international concern.
Cobr(a) – the inter-departmental group named after the cabinet briefing room where it met – convened usually to plan government responses to terrorist threats and to emergencies, such as flooding, had already assembled the first time to consider the threat from Covid.
It was, however, an emerging threat still very much overshadowed by the wider political backdrop, most particularly the continuing Brexit saga.
A 3 February a keynote speech in which the new prime minister predicted a ‘supercharged’ free trading future for a UK now freshly freed from its EU shackles grabbed the headlines. Covid was not going to be allowed to get in the way of that.
The same day, the UK-registered Diamond Princess cruise ship returned to Yokohama port in Japan. 3,711 passengers and crew were quarantined there on board for 14 days. Some were repatriated by the US and other governments prior to the completion of that initial quarantine period. Others, testing positive but not hospitalized, remained on board throughout much of February, even into March.
711 people (19%) on that ship ultimately tested positive for Covid, many of whom were transferred to over-stretched local health facilities. 13 died, including the first UK national to suffer a reported Covid-related death.
The propensity of the virus to spread quickly but unevenly among an elderly passenger demographic sharing common facilities had been demonstrated: the World Health Organization (WHO) advised that Diamond Princess accounted for half of all Covid cases then reported outside China.
The lesson that was there to be learnt concerning the protection of their respective resident care home populations was not learnt either by the UK government or its devolved administrations or many other European governments.
The initial UK public health policy response was one of containment: detect early cases, follow up close contacts, to prevent the disease taking hold, for as long as possible.
In line with that international travelers from infected areas were taken under police escort to requisitioned hotels for 14 days quarantine. Identified actual cases in the UK were few – fingers on one hand. International airlines withdrew their Chinese flights.
Half-hearted efforts were also made to introduce contact tracing. This identified that a middle-aged Hove man, after apparently contracting Covid in Singapore on a business trip before interrupted his journey home to take a short break in a French ski-chalet, had apparently infected at least five people – a high proportion of the total hitherto recorded as Covid-infected – at least in England.
The part-time scout master was later interviewed in magazine-style format as a bit of curiosity, in rude health following his period of quarantine in a London hospital, reflecting the prevailing media noise, which then seemed as likely to recede than to intensify.
The European response to Covid continued to be muted, restrained, and, in retrospect, blasé throughout much of February; to the point of negligence, even.
Across the Channel in newly liberated Blighty, the political and public policy response to Covid was likewise lacklustre, not ‘supercharged’. In mid-February, Boris Johnson enjoyed an extended period of ‘down time’ at his Kent ‘grace and favour’ historic mansion, apparently basking in the glow of having got both a 80 seat majority for his party – its largest since 1987 – and ‘Brexit Done’. It later transpired that his new partner was pregnant.
And as the days gradually got longer the attention of the wider population drifted rather to the future joys of spring replacing the partial and chosen hibernation encouraged by a dull and wet winter.
The last week of February was half-term. The more affluent jetted-off for skiing holidays in alpine Europe; greater numbers headed to packed domestic attractions. I, myself, organized a short break to Bavaria for the end of March, looking forward to crossing much of the region by public transport, sampling the local sights and amenities.
Poignantly, later, in May, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, was to tell MPs that a wave of imported Covid-19 infections had flowed into the UK in early March – a flow quite possibly accounted for by returning half-term vacationers. Hindsight is both a wonderful and cruel thing.
Although Cobra continued to meet and consider Covid in the prime minister’s absence, the emerging pandemic persisted in media portrayal as primarily a Chinese problem producing incidental issues elsewhere that threatened to become larger.
Nearly all the c.3,000 deaths recorded as Covid-related by the end of February had been recorded in China, save for less than 100 elsewhere in the world.
By the end of March, however, as we will shortly see, the picture had already both burst its frame and inverted: China accounted for c3,300 of a worldwide total of c39,000 deaths.
Boris Johnson finally attended his first Cobra meeting on Covid on the 2 March.
Science, SAGE, and public policy to lockdown
The Scientific Group for Emergencies (SAGE) remit is to provide timely and coordinated scientific advice to decision makers within Cobra, Cabinet, and right across government.
Co-chaired by the government’s chief scientific and medical advisers, mainly comprising independent academics within specialist supporting expert groups, such as the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M): a key group focused on infectious disease modelling and epidemiology. Another was NERVTAG, the novel and emerging respiratory infections group.
From January onwards SAGE met regularly – usually twice-weekly – on Covid. Its operations and deliberations and feeder groups were initially opaque and mysterious, but following accusations of non-transparency, minutes of its meetings, consensual statements, with some supporting papers, were belatedly published, albeit weeks in arrears.
These show that its meetings and papers were marked by uncertainty and tentativeness, practically until lockdown was announced.
There was a reliance, well into February, upon models predicated on assumptions derived from the experience of previous influenza epidemics. Undue weight was placed on transmission by children. The exceptional exposure risk to the very elderly – in care home settings especially – that Covid posed was an absent parameter (not factored-in) in the models assembled for, and considered by, SAGE.
These models therefore missed a key real-world determinant of Covid outcomes across the UK: an omission later explained by Sir Patrick Vallance and other key SAGE members as due to lack of data.
A 3 February statement concluded that without a better evidence base concerning the transmissibility of the virus, the impact of potential interventions and their interaction on Covid spread would be hard to determine, noting, for example, that little direct evidence was available on the effects of cancelling large public events.
And, a 25 February supporting paper considering the impacts of various non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI’s), concluded that, excepting for school closure, reliable estimates of their impact were lacking, even for influenza. That meant, in turn, that there was “insufficient data to parameterise the simulation model (used here) accurately enough to give a high level of confidence in model predictions of individual policies”.
The ‘science’ was flying mainly blind as the coming Covid storm gathered strength and speed.
What was better understood, however, within SAGE, was that without action a future pandemic would overwhelm the NHS before its peak was reached, but that a sustained application of NPI’s, especially if combined and introduced early, should help to delay and flatten that peak.
Such NPI’s included the:
- closure of schools and universities;
- home isolation of symptomatic cases;
- voluntary household quarantine on occurrence of a symptomatic case in a household; and,
- social distancing, where all non-household social contact ceased, bar ‘essentials’ and attending school and work.
A 26 February paper extended that conclusion and made explicit an assumption: an alternative strategy focused on the household isolation of over 65’s and other vulnerable groups and on special measures around care homes, would mean that ‘‘the majority of the population would then develop immunity, hopefully preventing any second wave, while reducing pressure on the NHS”.
It went on to note that it “was a political decision to consider whether it is preferable to enact stricter measures at first, lifting them gradually as required or to start with fewer measures and add further measures if required”.
27 February SAGE minutes recorded (minute 6) that ‘extended mitigations’ could be expected to change the shape of the epidemic curve or the timing of a first or second peak, but it was unlikely they would reduce the overall number of total infections (the attack rate). In other words, such mitigations would re-distribute infections and deaths temporally (over time) but not reduce them.
An action was also recorded for UK academic modelling groups (Imperial, Oxford, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) with NHS planners to organise a working group (starting week 2 March 2020) to analyse key clinical variables for a reasonable worst case planning scenario for the NHS, which could then be reviewed by SPI-M for subsequent discussion at SAGE.
In the public arena, the government’s first forward-looking Coronavirus Action Plan, published on 3 March, reflected the underlying scientific ambivalence and uncertainty swirling within and emanating from SAGE.
The plan’s declared primary public policy aim was to flatten the peak of the epidemic to provide more time for the NHS to prepare for it. This was hopefully to buy time for a vaccine and/or therapies to be developed. Meanwhile measures to first delay and then mitigate the onset and impact of Covid were to be introduced as part of the plan; but only when assessed “as necessary”, following consideration of their social costs and impacts.
By February it was already known that Covid disproportionately impacted upon the very elderly. Chinese case fatality data reported a c15% death rate for over 80’s, compared to 0.32% for people in the 20-49 bracket, (see, for example: https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/global-covid-19-case-fatality-rates/).
Later datasets have continued to confirm the proclivity of the virus to affect the very elderly people, especially those suffering other respiratory-based and other co-morbidities.
Epidemiological and modelling data, according to the 5 March SAGE minutes, was by then available to support delay and mitigation measures to modify the epidemic peak and to reduce mortality rates (author note: presumably short-term ones in line with its 27 February minute 6).
In that light, minute two recommended the implementation – within 1-2 weeks (author emphasis) – of:
- individual home isolation (symptomatic individuals to stay at home for 14 days);
- whole family isolation (fellow household members of symptomatic individuals to stay at home for 14 days after last family member becomes unwell).
Minute three further advised that scientific data was also available to support implementation – roughly two weeks later (author emphasis) – of the social isolation (cocooning) for those over 65 or with underlying medical conditions, for the same purpose.
Consistent with such advice, on 7 March, the government asked people exhibiting Covid symptoms to self-isolate for seven days.
Both the science and the politics, however, were soon to be swamped by events in Italy.
There – on the back of an earlier exponential spread of infections – an uncontrolled demand surge in admissions and demand for intensive-bed care support had by early March clearly overwhelmed local health systems. Lombardy was the worst hit. Much of Italy, where deaths rose exponentially in days, was put into severe lockdown. Spain soon followed suit.
As the empirical situation across Europe and the UK became both clearer and more concerning, unease grew across SAGE and wider scientific community.
Surveillance data, including Covid patients in intensive care units without a travel history, showed that community transmission of the virus within UK communities had begun: the 10 March SAGE minutes highlighted that the UK was likely harbouring thousands of Covid cases – as many as 5,000 to 10,000 – geographically spread nationally (minute five), and that transmission was already underway across both community and nosocomial (i.e. hospital) settings (minute six).
The genie was already out of the bottle.
An accordant action was recorded by SAGE that day for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Cabinet Secretariat to develop policy around implementation of: case isolation, household isolation, social distancing for elderly and vulnerable) interventions; data clarifying eligibility, numbers affected, and essential symptoms, was then to be shared with SAGE and its advisory groups.
Minute 14 endorsed the advice of a sub-group that individual case self-isolation should last for seven days from onset of symptoms. Minute 20 recommended that all members of a household should isolate for 14 days from the time that its first member exbibits symptoms. It went on to add that in the event of the first symptomatic person becoming well after seven days, that person can exit isolation but not the other member(s).
Minute 18 reported modelling that suggested, however, that the UK was still 10-14 weeks (author emphasis) from the epidemic peak (not attached with estimates of deaths) if no mitigations were introduced.
Insofar the actual peak was experienced less than one month later, on 8 April to mid-month despite the introduction of mitigation and then suppression measures, this proved over-optimistic.
Minute 30 noted again that special policy consideration should be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities where residents were more independent. No related action or monitoring process was attached to that minute, however.
Its lack of application was to greatly increase the Covid-related death toll over the next couple of months, with care home residents accounting for nearly half of such deaths.
On March 12 efforts to introduce contact tracing evaporated and finally ended. This the 3 March government plan had predicted, noting that as Covid becomes established, large-scale preventative measures, such as intensive contact tracing, ‘‘may lose their effectiveness’’, which would mean that ‘’resources would be more effectively used elsewhere’’.
In short, the existing UK testing and tracing infrastructure could only cope with a limited number of cases, which no longer was the case: confirmed Covid cases had risen from four on March 3 to 76 by March 9.
Chris Whitty, in a subsequent and rather fraught 21 July attendance before the Health and Social Care parliamentary select committee, justified that decision as “correct given the (then) current capacity”, as he did the related one to concentrate on providing swab tests to hospital patients.
Beyond SAGE, bars and pubs were still sometimes packed. The young Italian owners of one Chiswick bar were incredulous that no lockdown restrictions had yet been introduced, as Covid ‘’was sure to spread here.’’
In turn, I ventured surprise, on one hand, that the Italian government had demonstrated the wherewithal to implement a comprehensive lockdown; and, on the other, doubt that the economic impact of such a lockdown, on young people especially, would be tolerated in the capital where all of us worked, whereas the youth unemployment rate in Italy constituted a constant and accommodating endemic societal fact of life that the very presence of my hosts partly evidenced.
They got it right; I got it wrong. More to the point, they correctly predicted the need for quicker more concerted action from the government (against their own short-term economic interests) than was forthcoming.
Others had also by then made more evidenced warnings that Covid was sure to spread exponentially soon in countries such as the UK, most notably a 10 March Medium post: Coranavirus: Act today or People will Die that was viewed by 40 million people. The author, Tomas Pueyo, a Californian software engineer made the point that the true number of Covid cases is likely to exceed many times the official recorded number of diagnosed Covid cases. Applying a few assumptions, namely, an average time from onset of infection to death of 17.3 days, a case fatality ratio of 1%, and a doubling time of 6.2 days, he estimated, for instance, after ignoring cases apparently clustered, that given a figure of 22 Covid-deaths recorded across Washington state on the western seaboard of the United States (US) that the true number cases in that state was c3,000.
His message was simple but stark: The coronavirus is coming to you; it’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly; it’s a matter of days; maybe a week or two; when it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed. It was largely dismissed as in the ‘amateur armchair epidemiologist’ category.
Some schools in the UK, however, by then had already shut their doors by local decision. Responding to the threat of the virus, public behaviour had also begun to change in late February, causing both car and public transport movements to fall. More people began to work from home and to stop unnecessary shopping and leisure trips.
Social distancing and homeworking continued to be encouraged by the government but, however, were not yet made subject to centrally imposed regulation or enforcement.
In that light, the 13 March SAGE minutes highlighted the “risk that current proposed measures (individual and household isolation and social distancing) will not reduce demand (for health care) enough: they may need to be coupled with more intensive actions to enable the NHS to cope, whether regionally or nationally” (minute nine).
Yet minute 21 also recorded that SAGE was unanimous “that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid will cause a second peak” and “it is a near certainty that countries such as China, where heavy suppression is underway, will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed”: a conclusion in line with the analytic thrust of its earlier published background February papers and minutes.
And, in the public arena that morning , the chair of SAGE, Sir Patrick Vallance, told the BBC Today programme that “if you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time”; the aim, therefore, was “to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely”, so as “to build up some kind of herd immunity”.
That very same Friday 13th March, 70,000 people, including some of my work colleagues, herded together to watch the Cheltenham Gold Cup, returning to work next week to tell of their luck with the bookies.
Two evenings previously, 52,000 watched Liverpool play Atletico Madrid, including thousands traveling from a country and a city where cases were rising at one of the highest European rates.
Both events provided a swansong for life as until then we had known it. That very evening, the government announced that mass gatherings would be banned from the following weekend.
Matt Hancock, the Health secretary, in a televised interview on Sunday 15 March, denied that herd immunity was government policy. He advised instead that “our goal is to protect life, and our policy is to fight the virus and protect the vulnerable and protect the NHS…(and to do that) … we need to bring the (rising) infection rate down” (and this might involve) “some quite extraordinary interventions that you don’t normally have in peacetime”.
Hours earlier, the preceding Saturday evening, measures to close restaurants, shops, other than pharmacies and supermarkets, and to shield the vulnerable over 70 age group by means of strict quarantining within their own home or are homes for an extended period, had been trailed through the media as comprising “part of a ‘wartime-style mobilisation effort” that would likely to be enforced within the next 20 days”. Hancock refused to rule out that their introduction was imminent.
Also leaked to the press that weekend were dramatic claims that without radical action the Covid death toll could reach 512,000 deaths in Great Britain and of 2.2m in the US.
That Imperial College Study, when released, on 16 March, was not ambiguous. According to the modelling assumptions that it applied, even the most effective mitigation strategy (case isolation; household quarantine; and social distancing of the elderly), would see general ward and ICU beds surge limits exceeded by at least 8-fold, resulting in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and of 1.1-1.2m in the US.
It concluded that epidemic suppression, where the rate of Covid-transmission or reproduction (the R-rate) was reduced to below one (each infected person on average goes on to infect less than one person: R<1) and then, crucially, was kept below that level, provided the only current viable strategy, and that there was an imminent need for UK to implement it.
Such effective suppression of the epidemic, as a minimum, rather than the more limited mitigation measures (author note: as the SAGE 13 March minutes recommended) would need instead to comprise a ‘”combination of social distancing of the entire population, home isolation of cases and household quarantine of their family members”, supplemented by school and university closures, even though ”such closures may have negative impacts on health systems due to increased absenteeism”. Population-wide social distancing was modelled within the report to have the largest impact.
It further noted that these measures could need to last for 18 months or more – or even indefinitely – until a vaccine(s) was readily available, though with some likely periods of alternating relaxation and re-imposition of individual measures, where and when the emergent data justified, that could vary geographically.
The Imperial modelling chimed with the unravelling Italian experience. It served to highlight the prospect that without a radical change in approach that the UK’s lower per capita intensive bed capacity would cause our NHS to be even more overwhelmed than had proved the case in Italy. UK deaths at the time were beginning to double exponentially across days.
The published 16 March Consensus view of SPI-M concluded that a combination of general social distancing and school closures (author note: that is suppression) with case isolation, household isolation and the concerted social distancing of vulnerable groups would be likely to control the epidemic, subject to them being kept in place for a long period.
It noted that SPI-M agreed that this strategy should be followed “as soon as practical”, at least in the first instance.
Sir Patrick Vallance later, when the sole witness to the 16 July Science and Techology Select Committee, appeared to claim that this was when SAGE provided clear advice to government, in effect, to lockdown – done on the back of emergent data (presumably the Imperial report) that Covid infections were doubling every three days.
Foe the record his precise answer was (Q1041): “When the SAGE sub-group on modelling, SPI-M, saw that the doubling time had gone down to three days, which was in the middle of March, that was when the advice SAGE issued was that the remainder of the measures should be introduced as soon as possible. I think that advice was given on 16 or 18 March, and that was when those data became available. Looking back, you can see that the data may have preceded that, but the data were not available before that. Knowledge of the three-day doubling rate became evident during the week before” (that is week beginning 9 March).
His chief medical adviser counterpart, Chris Whitty, was later to highlight, during his appearance at the 21 July Health and Social Care Committee that following consultation with Vallance that “there was an intention on the 16th very strongly to say that more measures were needed, and that is indeed what happened. If you look at the minutes of SAGE, it is clear that there was a package of things that were strongly recommended on the 16th, and those happened then. There was subsequently clear advice to close schools, which previously had not been advised. That happened subsequently”, and that the ‘operational’ difficulties involved in imposing a full lockdown immediately should be recognized.
The Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, himself advised the 21 July Science and Technology Select Committee that, “If you take 16 March, for instance, on that day we received advice from SAGE advising that the virus was accelerating. By that evening, I was in the Chamber announcing that there should be no social contact unless absolutely necessary and no travel unless necessary. In my eight years in Government, I have never seen faster decision-making on such big issues than happened then, translating scientific advice into Government action with unbelievable urgency”.
By July, however, the ‘science’ and the politics was becoming blurred. So back to the narrative.
On March 17, Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, wrote a letter to local acute care providers asking them to be ready to postpone all non-urgent elective operations from 15th April at the latest, for at least three months to provide an additional 30,000 acute care beds across England on top of the existing 100,000.
He also urged them to potentially provide half of that new addition (15,000) by ensuring the urgent discharge of patients awaiting discharge or with lengths of stay over 21 days, while community health providers and social care providers were likewise asked to free up community hospital and intermediate care beds “that could be used flexibly within the next fortnight” so as to possibly release up to another 10,000 beds for acute Covid care cases.
Many of the discharged patients were very elderly people who returned to, or were allocated a place in, residential and nursing care homes. They did not begin to get tested for Covid (testing capacity was inadequate even for NHS staff) until 15 April, after when the transfers had begun.
Unsurprisingly an unknown proportion of the elderly and frail were incubating the virus for onward transmission to their fellow residents – in age and morbidity, the group most vulnerable and exposed to it.
That St. Patrick’s Day no parades took place in Ireland as these and other public events had already been banned by the Irish government. The UK government now did likewise. Shielding was also introduced for the most vulnerable. The British public were exhorted to cease non-essential contact and travel.
The closure of schools was announced next day. Exceptions covered the children of critical health workers and vulnerable children when they needed to attend in person – about 2% of the total school population.
That Friday March 20, one week after the Cheltenham Gold Cup, I joined most of the working population in homeworking; much of the working office-based population had begun to do so earlier that week, when I cancelled my planned forthcoming trip to Bavaria.
Pubs, restaurants, and indoor leisure venues were shuttered across the UK from midnight 20 March. The closure of non-essential shops was announced on the following Monday 23 March.
That evening, the Prime Minister, in a nationwide television address confirmed the essential components of the UK lockdown that we were to experience well into May: that people should stay at home, save to shop for basic necessities, and then infrequently as possible; to take one form of exercise a day – for example, to run, walk, or cycle – but alone or only with members of your household; to access any medical need; to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and to travel to and from work, but only where absolutely necessary, where homeworking was not possible.
Non-essential movement was duly restricted from Wednesday March 24. The emergency Coranavirus Act 2020 was passed with regulations enacted on 26 March prohibiting all gatherings of more than two people in public, other than those living in the same household.
The closure of all shops selling non-essential goods including clothing and electronics was enforced.
Premises, including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship, were likewise compulsorily shut by statutory requirement.
Similar regulations were enacted by the devolved administrations. The constituent nations of the UK, initially at least, were united in their Covid public policy response.
A State-imposed Lockdown unprecedented in scale and reach since the world wars of the last century had been imposed in just one momentous week across the UK, tagged with the public health slogan: Stay at Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives.
We were not alone. Across ’every state, every district, every lane, every village’ of India, an even more stringent and remarkable lockdown had begun for its c1.4bn population. The Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced the lockdown likewise on television on March 23, giving Indians less than four hours’ notice before it took full effect that midnight.
The largest urban centres, such as Delhi and Kolkata, had already seen shop closures and scaled down public transport.
The phenomenal and previously unimaginable impact that lockdown had on the previous sheer cacophony of crowded cities like Kolkata can be glimpsed on this video, showing a city of a solitude, quietness, and clear air, never seen before, an environment that economically and socially could not be sustained.
India and other low-income countries with limited health systems and high-density urban populations appeared to be the most exposed to Covid. Initially, at least, however the Indian lockdown was successful in securing adherence and stunting community transmission of the virus.
It did attach accompanying grave hardship however on the poorest segments of the community. For example, migrant wage labourers stripped of their source of employment income were forced to trudge back to their family homes often hundreds of miles away in rural India, risking the transmission of the virus there.
Unfortunately, across recent weeks India has experienced a concerning steady rise in infections and deaths (quite possibly under-reported), resulting in the intermittent re-imposition of national, state, and local lockdowns, amid with officially reported cases of Covid, approaching one million, with true cases likely – given limited testing incidence – likely to be much higher.
My wife whom I had left in her Kolkata family home back in January was unable to fly back to London as planned. As I write, she is still waiting for international flights to be reinstated, and local spikes of Covid cases in my wife’s neighbourhood have become common with police enforcing their transfer to state isolation facilities.
Individual US states in March progressively applied their own lockdown versions, subject also to local variation. States neighboring NY City, and California, led the way.
Their governors sidestepped a reluctant and sceptical president, whom appeared more concerned about avoiding an economic hit that could undermine his November re-election pitch: that is, essentially, he had improved the employment and income of his blue-collar supporters at the same time as giving the elite political and cultural establishment a bloody nose.
Trump’s blandishments to inject bleach and to take an anti-malarial drug as effective antidotes to Covid, however, were scientifically rebuffed, and generally attracted ridicule across much of the mainstream media.
By the end of March, according to the invaluable open access OurWorldinData website, the UK accounted for approximately 2,000 of the worldwide cumulative total of c39,000 Covid-related deaths.
Italy reported the largest number at c12,000 due to its early epidemic curve (author rounding of figures due to their uncertainty, variation of definition and reporting process, etc).
But by the end of the next month, the highest world-total of Covid-related deaths were recorded in the world’s richest large nation: the United States (US) with 61,000 deaths, with New York City particularly hard hit with some other hotspots, such as California.
The north European countries of Italy, France, Spain, and the UK reported cumulative deaths in the c24,000 to 28,000 range. The UK figure was c26,000.
These four advanced economies with the US accounted for something like three quarters of the world total of c228,000 Covid-related deaths at the end of April.
Covid may have started in China, but its initial spread was now concentrated in some of the high-income countries of Europe, and in the US. China and most of its close East Asia neighbours seemed to have escaped much of worst effects of Covid.
Shortly some of the societal systemic and public policy reasons for that will be explored, but first the question has to be posed: did up to 20,000-25,000 too many avoidable UK Covid-related deaths occur during the spring lockdown period; and, if so, why.
Late lockdown: cause or symptom?
With the benefit of hindsight viewed through a backward-looking lens amok a rising toll of 45,000-plus recorded UK Covid-related deaths (leaving aside for the purpose of this post definitional issues, including that excess deaths will prove ultimately best measure), it seems clear that the government clearly took the decision to lockdown in mid-March too late, with resulting tragic consequences.
Greg Clark, the chair of the 10 June House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, after referring Professor Neil Ferguson, the lead author of the Imperial study, to evidence made to an earlier 25 March meeting that Covid deaths would be unlikely to exceed 20,000, asked him why that proved to be such an under-estimate.
Ferguson replied: “that the epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced, and so, had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half”, a statement that captured the news headlines for the rest of that day.
Two other members of SPI-M giving evidence with Ferguson that day, Professor Matt Keeling and Dr. Nicholas Davies, made the less dramatic, but still stark point that an earlier imposed lockdown would have “significantly reduced the death toll” – a conclusion echoed by other SAGE members across different mediums, and now embedded within the mainstream consensus.
Sir Patrick Vallance, back in March, had also indicated then that 20,000 deaths would be a ‘good outcome’ but in July conceded that the subsequent UK outcome was “not good”.
A late lockdown provides one explanation. Ferguson suggested to the committee two others.
The first one is consistent with a late lockdown, considered below. The second one relates to the concentration of Covid deaths in care homes, which will be considered in the next section alongside the stream of evidence on that, which came on stream in June and July.
A heavier seeding of infections from foreign visitors – 1,500-2,000 cases from Italy and Spain, but only picked up in subsequent surveillance data and reported in early June – was taking place in early March. Ferguson confirmed that this was neither known nor factored into models at the time.
An exponentially rising tide of Covid infections from late February onwards certainly over-ran the analytic capacity of both the SAGE and Whitehall to respond in a stepped, calibrated, and planned way, with catastrophic consequences.
The first UK Covid-related death had been recorded at the beginning of March. Such deaths, however, lag three weeks or so from the time of causative infection. The models used to project future deaths, hence require accurate information on infection levels that was not available.
That lack of accurate information on the actual infection curve meant that the true incidence of the virus and its likely propensity to spread was not identified by the epidemiological models that SAGE relied heavily upon to inform its wider assessments and recommendations.
The UK simply did not have in place a fit-for-purpose comprehensive fit-for-purpose track, test, and isolate infrastructure, including serological (blood or plasma-based) antibody testing data – denoting current infection levels, whatever the degree of symptoms infected individuals exhibited, to the timely degree of accuracy that the occasion then demanded.
Even when fast forwarding to July, data reported from the dedicated and latest ONS Covid Infection Survey is still attached with wide ranges of uncertainty (confidence intervals). During the 14-day period from 22 June to 5 July 2020, it reported an estimated two new Covid infections for every 10,000 individuals per week in the community population in England, equating to an estimated 1,700 new cases per day at a 95% confidence interval of 700 to 3,700.
Public Health England (PHE) also publishes daily positive cases confirmed by lab tests. These, however, because of the continuing limited coverage of the track and testing regime that has been progressively rolled-out in recent months, still provide only a partial picture of numbers of people infected.
Lack of accurate and comprehensive testing thus provides the underlying reason why the ‘science’ – as was marshalled and offered by SAGE and its supporting scientific community – was simply too ambiguous and uncertain to provide a clear public policy route-map to combat Covid, at least in real-time.
No clear backing or steer was given to government to introduce a comprehensive lockdown to suppress the spread of the epidemic until the 16 March, when it was already too late. Even then that advice, as we have seen, was added with the rider, “as soon as practicable”; hardly a ringing call for urgent immediate action on a ‘clear the decks’ basis.
Even graduated mitigation measures to delay and flatten its peak were only definitely recommended by SAGE in early March (see minutes of March 5 and 13 meetings, reproduced in the previous section).
Instead the mortality figures that the Imperial study modelled were used as a banner cover by the responsible politicians to justify the abrupt policy shift from mitigation to lockdown.
Published on the 16 March, it claimed to have “informed policymaking in the UK and other countries in the last weeks”. Professor Ferguson, more specifically claimed in a BBC Panorama programme broadcast on the 20 July that he had advised SAGE of its main results and implications as early as on the 5 March, but these were not fully accepted by his peers at the time. Perhaps the pessimism bias of epidemiologists in modeling determining variables of morbidity and fatality incidence, did not help.
That be as that it may, but the published study itself acknowledged, however, that its modelling assumptions were only updated in the week prior to the weekend of March 14-15; and that its conclusions had only been reached “in the last few days following the refinement of estimates of likely Intensive Care Unit (ICU) demand due to Covid based on experience in Italy and the UK”.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who sits on SPI-M and on the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Advisory Group, when giving evidence to the same June Science and Technology Committee that Ferguson gave evidence to, (noting that Woolhouse is sympathetic to alternative Swedish approach of partial and voluntary lockdown) asserted that the UK lockdown was a short-term panic measure taken here and elsewhere because “we could not think of anything better to do given the information we had available”, adding that its application should have adjusted quickly in step with emerging outcomes and evidence (Q. 808).
On the available evidence, lockdown – based on a ‘suppression strategy’ reliant on near-confinement of most of UK population (except for prescribed health and other key-workers) – does appear to have been introduced by political decision makers apparently suddenly panicked by a rushing Covid tide that threatened to turn into a tsunami.
Their previously preferred ‘mitigation strategy’ based on two-week quarantines of infected households was swept away, practically before it had even started in earnest.
The argument now made – with hindsight – by many commentators, mirroring Ferguson and some other members of SAGE, is that the UK government, in effect, has blood on its hands, due to it locking down too late, dithering indecisively when the overwhelming of local Italian health systems by Covid, especially in Lombardy, was known, and when the government was beginning at last to receive more assertive prompts from SAGE to quickly introduce some form of restrictions, if not yet full lockdown, to counter its spread.
Perhaps. Italy, Spain, and France, in that order, imposed a full lockdown by or during the period beginning March 9 and ending 16 March, while the UK did so between 16 and 24 March, a period little more than a week in duration.
If the metric taken to measure responsiveness is rather the time period taken to impose a full lockdown after the third or a similar low number of Covid-related death, then the delay, when Italy is taken as the comparator, increases to two weeks, and to over a week when France and Spain are so taken, along with Belgium and Germany.
These last two countries locked-down about the same time or just before UK did, even though they were slightly behind the epidemic curve in terms of Covid-deaths reported. Germany shut down its land borders on the 16 March.
Such metrics, however, are somewhat abstract, and hindsight-based; prone, in any case, to cross-national and intrinsic ‘like-for like’ data measurement and definitional issues.
That said, once it was decided that lockdown was necessary, the conclusion that then at the very least it should have been done with a very minimum of delay and with concerted urgency and effectiveness appears difficult to argue with.
According to an 16 July FT magazine review Cobra at its 16 March meeting – with its members presumably by then cognisant of the Imperial modelling and the 16 March SAGE injunction to introduce measures of suppression – that required sense of urgency was palpably lacking; instead, according to one participant, discussion took place about how the bell-curve of the disease might still be flattened and how people ‘might feel fatigued’ if restrictions were introduced too early.
Was lockdown necessary in the first place?
The author remains reluctant to rush to pass damning judgment on the government’s lateness to lockdown. In part, that is because of the uncertainty of the science.
Also, as might be gleaned from this narrative, it is because I was blasé about the risk that Covid posed myself.
I took the view during February that it would not be sensible to over-react and cause actual economic and indirect social/health damage to counter a potential risk that might or might not arise.
Also by then I had begun to articulate in my mind, if hazily and only in part, that if the purpose of lockdown was to continually suppress the incidence of the virus until its demise, in contrast to delay and flatten its initial peak, in logic, any such lockdown would need to be both prolonged and combined with measures of strict border control and/or effective entry testing, until a workable vaccine or treatments became available.
Any intermittent lifting and re-imposition of the lockdown, however, at a national level would risk intolerable economic uncertainty and damage.
The other alternative, save for the availability of a safe, effective, vaccine a scale and/or effective treatments remains the acquisition of national herd immunity was acquired through infection (60-70% of population infected), or that the virus becomes otherwise neutered or less virulent over time.
That, essentially, remains the case.
The government at the time of writing is betting that the current state of relaxed national lockdown (re-opened businesses, pubs and businesses, internal and international travel, renewed household contact, but maintenance of social distancing, combined with other adjustments, such as increased use of face masks) can be maintained indefinitely, until a vaccine(s) and/or treatments come to the rescue.
Across the world lifting of lockdown restrictions has largely followed, and been allowed by, a sufficiently reduced level of infection, but with such lifting made conditional on the maintenance of a low and steady infection level, with some notable exceptions, such as some US states, which then have suffered a resurgence of the virus to the point where it again threatens to spread exponentially.
The UK cannot be sure that another national lockdown may prove once again to be the only option left to stem a second peak of deaths – the prime minister declared hope that ‘it may be over by Christmas’ is simply that, irresponsible, as well as unevidenced.
In the autumn and winter, when the schools re-open and office working resumes in earnest, climatic conditions considered more conducive to the spread of the virus will be present. A 14 July Academy of Medical Sciences government commissioned report, in that vein, warned of a reoccurrence of Covid, which combining with the winter influenza peak, could on a realistic worst case scenario” – without effective mitigation measures focused on health and care home settings – surpass by far that of the spring 2020 peak.
The government hopes that the national testing and track infrastructure by then will be sufficiently robust and comprehensive to identify local outbreaks in time for local customized interventions to effectively snuff them out. Leicester has been in local lockdown since June, with some considerable damage to its local economy.
Avoiding another national lockdown does rather assume that that the current worldwide exponential growth in infections – that even with under-reporting is likely to exceed 15 million by the end of July – does not translate again into another national rising tide of infections that washes over the capacity of localized responses.
Seasonal flu in a bad year can cause excess deaths, when measured against a five-year rolling average. As recently as in 2017-18, according to the AMS report referenced above, England and Wales experienced approximately 50,000 excess winter deaths (seasonal concentration of deaths, not total excess deaths recorded during a period relative to five year average of the same previous period, as is reported by the ONS).
Yet the government does not disrupt the economy to prevent and reduce the flu death toll. To persuade myself that I was not being callous on that score, back in February I consoled myself with the thought that if Covid proved such an event, it would enforce attention on the need to take more effective measures to counter the impact of flu on the elderly and vulnerable as well, reducing its future perennial toll, perhaps contributing thus to the net saving of life and morbidity outcomes over time.
Of course, I did not possess the responsibility of, and collective resources and knowledge available to, government; yet it is difficult to conceive that a responsible government would have locked-down in late February, or even very early March, and prevented international travel: such a reaction according to the then available evidence, including from what we now know was coming out of SAGE at the time, would have been an over-reaction in the eyes of most, remembering that the UK is an international air hub: one that is crucial to the functioning of its economy at activity and employment levels consistent with expected real income growth and public financing requirements.
In the aftermath of the initial Covid wave and its consequences, international movements remain very constrained. That, if unchanged, threatens to bankrupt many airlines with resulting impacts on national economies and employment levels. If movements, however, recover they will provide increased opportunities for the spread of the virus back into Europe and UK.
The government, in that light, unexpectedly announced during the last weekend of July an imminent re-imposition of quarantine requirements for travelers from Spain, instantly disrupting the holiday plans of those lulled into booking their usual summer holiday, when the original blanket quarantine requirement was lifted for most European holiday destinations.
The UK remains an international air hub. It is not like Taiwan or New Zealand that can relatively easily impose a shutdown of its airports to ensure in tandem with other effective measures a low or negligible Covid incidence.
The UK with its stake and dependence on the international economy coupled with the high propensity of its population to travel to myriad destinations, is especially exposed to seeding of a second Covid wave through international transmission.
In that light, it is telling that some major airlines, such as British Airways, are now taking the initiative to campaign for a more coherent and international coordinated approach to testing international travelers.
There is also a school of argument that concerted measures of mitigation and voluntary social distancing, as employed by Sweden, would have achieved much the same result with less economic disruption. Proponents point to evidence that the R-value was decreasing before full lockdown was imposed.
Others, such as the leader of an Oxford University research group, have gone further. In a May interview she advised that “I think that the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country so I think it would be definitely less than 1 in 1000 and probably closer to 1 in 10,000”, making the UK Infection Fatality Rate (IPF) – mortality rate of population truly infected – somewhere between 0.1% and 0.01%., before going on to cast doubt on whether the government back in March should have acted on a ‘reasonable’ worst case scenario.
Professor Johan Giesecke, an advisor to the Swedish Government, and whose protégé, Anders Tegnel, has directed it, have consistently argued that the Covid IPR is of the region of 0.1%, compared to the 1% modelled by Imperial – a figure consistent with around 50% of the UK and Swedish population having already been infected, mirroring that for seasonal flu.
He further ventured in an UnHerd summary piece contentiously (and inaccurately) that ‘‘Covid-19 is a mild disease and similar to the flu, and it was the novelty of the disease that scared people’’, before concluding that subsequent flattening of the curve in the UK, is due to the most vulnerable dying first, as much as to the effect of our lockdown, and that ‘’the ultimate result will eventually be similar for all countries”. According to him, the UK public policy ‘’180 degree U-turn’’ in favour of suppression in March was therefore wrong, as the previous approach was ‘‘better’’, noting that the change was based on an unpublished non-peer-reviewed paper (the Imperial Study) that applied too pessimistic modelling assumptions, according to a mathematical modelling methodology that was unsuited ”in any case” for public policy development.
Well, again, perhaps, at least in some respects. Professor Ferguson, the lead author of the Imperial study, himself has taken a more nuanced and less categorical stance in favour of the suppression strategy, suggesting even that up to two-thirds of excess deaths attributable to Covid could turn out to come from the collateral fall out from lockdown, including cancelled and delayed appointments for acute conditions, and the reluctance of people needing such intervention to seek medical help.
Evidence that the stock level of Covid infection – whether displayed or asymptomatic – is anything like approaching 50% in any country, is certainly lacking. Ongoing serological (antibody) studies have reported an incidence of generally below 10% across various population samples, although some counter that future population resistance to Covid will depend upon the prior and innate genetical and other propensities of individuals rather than rely on an increased stock of infected individuals with Covid antibodies.
Such claims, however, come across as reliant more on faith-based assertion or belief, than on scientific-based conclusion secured from supportive evidence that can be validated – well, it well may be true, but it may equally well be wrong, when no-one really knows. A bit like both epidemiological modelling and politics, then.
Certainly not to shift to strict suppression during that week March 16-23 would have been a very brave, but dangerous course of action for the government to take on the information then available given the then close and present danger that the NHS would be overwhelmed without drastic steps.
Comparing the UK and Swedish approaches using imperfect and uncertain information that can’t be determined with more certainty until the pattern of excess deaths attributable both directly to Covid and indirectly from the impacts of lockdown is known (and after taking account of factors such as age structure and population density), is a red herring, as is a fruitless retrospective focus on what precise date the UK should have fully locked-down that Professor Ferguson, regrettably, for whatever reason(s), seems to want to fan.
Why the UK lockdown was late
The key point that has to be learnt and applied in the here and now is that government room to maneuver had by March been lost by lack of preparedness; of foresight; and, of related focused but flexible planning arrangements for, and then in responding to, Covid.
It is these connected failures that can truly and fairly be laid at the door of the UK government, and which need to be understood to allow the lessons to be drawn, necessary to maximise the prospect that a future combined Covid- and Jobocalypse is avoided.
- Lack of preparedness, in terms of stockpiling and then procuring adequate PPE in both and quality terms, and in providing a fit for purpose test and track infrastructure in waiting for a pandemic previously identified as the biggest future risk to UK national security. Two fundamental and crucial failures.
At the start of the outbreak, the only central stockpile – held by PHE – was designed for a flu pandemic, lacking items such as gowns and visors. Since then money (c£14bn for 2020-21) has been thrown at its procurement but the belated response has meant both unnecessary deaths and likely poor value-for-money.
Swab-based antigen testing, which determines whether a person currently has the virus, with antibody testing, which shows whether a person has previously had it, still needs to be scaled up.
- Lack of focused flexibility, in terms of an absence of effective and creative civil service and special adviser scanning of what was happening across the world in real time and translating the lessons of that experience into effective mechanisms of policy planning and action at the necessary pace.
Cobra itself proved itself as inadequate institutional mechanism to respond to the Covid crisis. Whether that failure was the result of intrinsic and endemic problems in the wider machinery of government is the crucial question. Cobra seems to have been replaced by two dedicated Cabinet sub-committees focused on strategic and operational matters: Covid-S and Covid-O.
- Lack of foresight, in terms of its failure to identify the need and act upon it to protect the care home population against an epidemic, which, even by early February, was identified as mainly a killer of the very elderly and the otherwise medically vulnerable. The care home population given its characteristics and setting was clearly a group likely to be the most susceptible and exposed to the virus.
That last dreadful and shameful failure, in large part, appears to explain the UK’s relatively poor per capita Covid death rate comparative to its close neighbour European peers.
The care home scandal
The second reason that Ferguson gave to the Science and Technology Committee in June as to why actual Covid-related deaths exceeded his and other estimates of 20,000 was the concentration of infections and deaths in residential care homes, related to the disease risk profile of their residents and the tendency of care workers to work within and to hop between close clusters of such homes.
Recently published evidence is depressingly compelling. ONS data released on 12 June reviewing deaths occurring in the UK across the entire March and April 2020 period, registered up to 15 May, reported 45,000 excess deaths for that period, 43% more than the average for the same time period over the last five years, 2015 to 2019.
44,628 deaths of care home residents were reported for the period, compared to the five-year average of 22,587, (figure 6 of the linked ONS publication), indicating that they accounted for half of the total excess deaths reported for the period.
England reported the highest percentage of deaths above average within care homes, with 102.0% more deaths than the five-year average for deaths within this group. 44.4% of these recorded deaths mentioned Covid on the applicable death certificate.
In total, as of 12 June 2020, 30% of Covid fatalities in England, 28% in Wales, 46% in Scotland and 42.4% in Northern Ireland were in care homes, according to an even more recent government report.
ONS survey data and analysis of 9,801 care homes in England and their resident population and staff for the period 26 May to 19 June (the Vivaldi Study) also provides supporting evidence of, and possible reasons for, the concentration of the impact of Covid on care home residents.
Across the 56% of the surveyed homes that reported at least one case of coronavirus, 20% of their residents, as reported by care home managers, were estimated as testing positive for Covid (95% confidence interval: 19% to 21%), during that period.
In such homes 7% of staff were similarly estimated to have tested positive (95% confidence interval: 6% to 8%).
Common factors identified in care homes with higher levels of infections amongst residents included the prevalence of infection in staff, especially those making more frequent use of agency nurses or carers.
An association was also found between care homes where staff receive sick pay and lower levels of infection in residents, but, conversely, higher levels of infection cases where care homes employ staff working across multiple sites.
In June, a National Audit Office (NAO) report pointed out that prior to the Covid outbreak, no process was in place to collect a wide range of daily data from care providers.
DHSC was ignorant on how many people were receiving care in each area. Local authorities generally only kept records on residents whose care they paid for.
It was only from early April that data at a national level was collated on workforce absences, and on PPE levels and overall risks from nursing and residential homes registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
The supply of masks, aprons, gloves, and visors and other (PPE) suitable for use in residential care home settings remained slow and inadequate, only meeting some of the modelled requirements received from health and social care providers, according to the NAO (para 20), until mid-May.
The resident care and nursing home population was the most Covid-vulnerable group, but, in terms of effective public policy attention, it was the most neglected.
From a social policy perspective, it is an outcome that is difficult to divorce from the client group’s lack of possession of political ‘voice’ power.
The needs of mentally ill patients discharged from asylums built in the Victorian era – often ear-marked for future lucrative redevelopment – into illusory ‘community care’ lacking replacement residential care facilities or adequate personal social work support, provides an example from earlier decades, continued into the present day by the relative neglect of the mentally ill by fragmented health and social services.
Yet the negligence was not one solely of omission, but also of commission.
The NAO in its report (para 6) advised that around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes, without testing for Covid, as part of the expected measures to free up hospital acute bed capacity that the 17 March Simon Stevens letter to NHS bosses set out – a practice that continued to 15 April.
This central failure in the UK Covid response was not an aberration, but was instead intrinsically related to, and a product of, the long-standing fragmentation of its health and social care systems.
This is with respect to the planning, funding, provision, and oversight, of social care and its separation from the nationally funded and coordinated health system.
That core structural problem has been compounded by systemic under-funding that got far worse during the post-2010 austerity years, with funding for local authority support for adult social care reduced by 50% or greater in some cases between 2010 and 2018, or, as Ian Birrell in a Tortoise Media piece reported: over the past decade, government spending fell in real terms on social care by about £300m, despite a 21 per cent rise in the number of citizens aged over 65, compared to rise in national health spending of £26bn: what one part of the system taketh, it has taken away from another.
Since 1980 there has been a shift from direct local authority funded care to a ‘mixed economy’ or out-sourced system, where independent for-profit and not-for-profit providers have grown share, with the largest independent providers consolidating the ‘market’, using private equity to provide larger purpose built homes often in the more affluent parts of the country, where self-funding residents are more likely to be located. Independent providers now account for 243,000 residential care beds compared to 76,811 in the 1980s.
If there is to be only one positive legacy of the Covid-crisis, it is that core structural problem that must finally be addressed in concerted and comprehensive manner.
The UK – England, especially, high per capita Covid death rates cannot be divorced from our societal value-base and patterned inequalities, as well as from functional government sub-performance.
A national health and care system funded in a sustainable and equitable manner is the required legacy.
A related recasting of the working conditions across the catering, cleaning, and care sectors, whose workers tend to have insecure working conditions reliant on the minimum wage and zero hour contracts, and where BAME groups, especially foreign-born workers, are over-represented (also making them susceptible to Covid, and then, because of their disproportionate dependence on a low wage and their lack of eligibility for sick pay, generated pressure on them to continue working despite displaying Covid symptoms), is also long overdue.
Easy to say, of course, given such a recasting would require substantial additional public spending, whether funded from national or local sources, during a period of public finance pressure. It is a case of you get what you pay for, while change requires cross-party support for a new settlement, not tinkering at the edges.
International lessons to be learnt
The future Covid landscape is shrouded in the fog of uncertainty.
The tension between a mitigation-based strategy more costly in terms of lives immediately lost and a more draconian suppression strategy that, in turn, has more direct and immediate impacts on the wider economy, which themselves engender longer-term indirect and real health and social future impacts (with any final total apportionment unquantifiable to any precise degree remains. It threatens to continue to bedevil UK policy.
The aim is to navigate away away from the worst of both worlds we inherited in May of high relative per capita death rates and massive macro-economic damage to a ‘new normal’ where low infection rates are maintained, avoiding the need for a any new national lockdown.
The prime minister in characteristically optimistic and swashbuckling style has confirmed that is the UK government objective. In effect, he is relying on hope.
A hope that the above tension can be reconciled by a more empirical evidence-based data-driven approach that can avoid the dire and likely unsustainable economic consequences of another full lockdown based on suppression of the virus.
The genesis of that hope was first set out in the government’s 11 May Recovery Plan. This heralded a second ‘smarter control’ phase of the public policy response to the epidemic, involving the application of effective testing, tracing, and tracking of the infection.
Public health interventions could then be aligned better to risk, allowing the timely detection of infection outbreaks at a more localised level, and a more tailored, targeted, and effective public response at that level.
The problem remains one of implementation. The debacle of Matt Hancock’s hoisting his 100,000 daily tests to the mast of an end of April target that relegated purpose and effectiveness to supposed and sometimes spurious target figure was followed by a subsequent pattern of patchy and slow development of testing capacity.
A continuing example of the lack of sufficient government focused flexibility: the core cause of the UK’s poor and inadequate Covid performance.
Realization of the hope that we combine a continuing relaxation of lockdown with a containment of Covid, in an international context where reported Covid infections are mounting, and which threaten to rise exponentially, requires that shortcoming to be overturned.
Otherwise we are simply relying on an effective vaccine(s) or treatments to ride quickly to the rescue.
The reluctance and, perhaps, systemic tendency to learn from and to apply international lessons, as summarized below, in a considered and evidence-driven way in a way that works for Britain, will also have to reverse.
The strategies adopted by most east Asian countries have proved invariably and overwhelmingly more effective than the UK’s, when measured against per capita infection and death rates.
This is almost beyond comparison, as starkly conveyed by the Covid-caused deaths per one million people (rounded up to nearest whole number) data, reported below and extracted from the Our World in Data website on 14 July for the following countries.
Japan: 8; Thailand: 1;
South Korea: 5; Myanmar: 0;
Singapore: 4; Vietnam: 0.
The UK ratio is 660. The disparity speaks for itself.
Although variations exist between these countries in relation to the strictness or otherwise of the lockdowns they imposed, and with respect to their political systems, their strategies to combat Covid, were, and are, marked by focused and systemic regimes of testing and contact tracing and the quarantine of affected individuals combined usually with effective immigration control.
Both sets of interventions were effectively imposed and implemented at a timely and early enough point in the infection curve.
Vietnam, a low-income country of 93 million with a population of an average per capita income of less than $4,000 has reported no deaths at all and negligible infections attributable to Covid. This almost breath-taking outcome was achieved through the use of comprehensive testing and then quarantining of infected individuals.
Its communist government is now preparing for growth and recovery through the fast tracking of public infrastructure projects, including a north-south highway, two metro lines and a new Ho Chi Minh City (its capital: formerly Hanoi, when the country was divided into southern and northern segments) airport.
A striking portend of the touted coming ‘Asian century’, if ever one can be comprehended. Near neighbours, Laos and Cambodia, have also reported nil Covid deaths.
Although most of these societies possess young age structures, 20% of Japan’s population is over 75, compared to c12-13%, in the case of Sweden and the UK. The success of the E.Asian model to combat Covid cannot possibly be explained away by the relative youth of their populations, therefore.
Institutional factors based on their history and melding of societal value-base and culture with public policy design and implementation systems do appear relevant to their success.
Previous experience of responding to the 2003 SARS or to the MERS outbreak also provided their policy makers with a workable template, and an awareness of the task in hand with the associated imperative for timely and concerted policy response to an emerging epidemic.
In short, their governments were able to impose in some cases draconian directive measures of control, including quarantining, with ready public consent and acquiescence, while possessing the wherewithal (and the foresight) to marshal and direct resources to ensure effective and comprehensive implementation of testing and quarantining systems – all in co-operation with their wider populations and across particular community-settings.
Although the lessons to be learnt are not always precisely replicable to the UK context given their own distinctive political and social cultures and socio-economic realities, the theme of public policy planning and implementation systems that combine focus with flexibility, and that put a higher weighting on effective action and results, not short-term noise, cannot, and should not, be ignored.
The UK per capita 660 per one million death rate is the highest in Europe, save for Belgium; higher than that of Italy, which has the highest proportion of very elderly people susceptible to Covid, and nearly six times higher than that of Germany, which also has an aging population structure.
The figures reported below are less mind-boggling than the Asian comparison, but still revealing, nevertheless.
UK: 660; Netherlands: 353;
Spain: 607; Ireland: 354;
Sweden: 475; Germany: 108;
France; 460; Denmark: 105.
Germany through the application of a timely and proportionate lockdown in March, effective testing infrastructure, and, perhaps, most significantly at all, effective protection of its elderly and vulnerable population especially those residing in care homes (helped by spare capacity within its health system), has succeeded in contained Covid-related deaths to a fraction of the UK’s, despite its elderly age distribution – an achievement that demonstrates that an European democratic culture is no bar to success.
Test, test more, and test more, again, while infections are low, is the overriding message.
The polls, although tightening with the squeezing of the Liberal Democrat and Brexit party vote share, continue to project a comfortable working majority for Boris Johnson on 12 December.
Labour itself seems resigned to limiting losses of seats in Brexit-voting areas in the Midlands and North, the same areas, as Brexit and Lies that Matter pointed out, which will suffer the most from a bad-Johnson Brexit.
The 2017 Corbyn effect has not materialized this time round. His lamentable failure to lance the anti-semitism boil, and his similar – but different – inability or unwillingness to relate to ‘Middle England’ in a way that his electorally successful predecessors – Attlee, Wilson, and Blair – did in varying ways, continues to dog his party’s prospects.
The actual result on Thursday, of course, cannot be predicted precisely in today’s uncertain political environment.
The young and undecided could still tilt towards Labour on the day.
Local circumstances and issues could intervene and disrupt the national pattern given the vagaries of our current electoral system.
The parties’ respective manifesto commitments, or, rather, lack of substantive ones that can be trusted, could still induce an unexpected decisive and late electoral effect.
Significant electoral shifts, however, invariably follow a wider groundswell of the popular mood. Yet that remains stubbornly stuck in muted cynical mode.
The Conservative’s resurrection of their ‘triple-lock’ commitment not to increase income, national insurance, and VAT rates compares with Labour’s to fund additional expenditure from increased taxes on companies and income-tax payers earning over 80k.
Although clear blue water, accordingly, has opened-up between Labour and Conservative on tax and spending, neither party have articulated a future economic and social vision that engages and resonates with the wider electorate.
It will be tragic if the lies of an entitlement-laden and amoral former Etonian prime minister allows him to win the day because Labour neglected to engage and enthuse Middle England voters, at a time when the intellectual tide has turned in favour of, and national need calls out for, a radical but feasible socialist or social democratic – call it what you will – programme in government.
To deny Johnson a working majority Labour must continue re-orient and its Prioritise its message, but with much more Focus, Consistency and Honesty.
It should mesh its vision and Brexit policy much more clearly, highlighting how a bad-Johnson Brexit will sunder the UK, undermine peace in Northern Ireland (NI), and generate unnecessary economic costs, acting as a deadweight drag or worse on growth and hence the public finances across the UK.
This when the maintenance, let alone the improvement, of public services to an aging population in reality, will require increased borrowing to fund rising real current expenditures and/or higher taxes, which, if not direct, will be of the less transparent stealth variety, difficult to limit in incidence to higher income groups, even when intended. Funding social care is a case in point; honesty on that score is needed.
To be successful, both in electoral and sustainable strategic policy template terms, ‘Goody-bag’ giveaways and unattainable maximalist gestures should to be downplayed. Measures that interlock economic justice and efficiency should instead be prioritised.
Institutional reform to secure demonstrable efficiency in the selection, planning and delivery of infrastructural investment must be integral, and not subsidiary, to the design and operation of fiscal rule reform: greater fiscal latitude for productive public investment must go hand-in-hand with greater demonstrable efficiency in its selection and execution, as set out in Making Public Investment Smart.
Individuals are empowered, in practice, to take control over their future by having pathways to suitable, available, and improved education, housing and job opportunities, forged and opened-up across the country, pushing up productivity and expanding economic opportunity to lower income households.
That, in turn, will depend upon high quality transport, digital, and social infrastructure in housing, education, and, to a degree, cultural services within existing high-productivity cities and areas – the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle is a case in point – to maximise their potential to generate more growth through the further complementary agglomeration of productive firms and people.
At the same time, coastal and smaller cities and towns, especially in sub-regions located north of a line drawn between the Humber and Wash and in Cornwall, that have borne the brunt of decades of de-industrialisation, losing jobs not replaced by relatively stagnant or declining service sectors – the same areas that tend to the most exposed to the loss of EU Structural Funds – will also rely upon targeted and efficient productive investment in economic and social infrastructure.
Is the answer then, growth-friendly general or ‘place-blind’ policies to improve education, healthcare, infrastructure, and affordable housing?
Or more place-based policies to tackle regional inequality, where subsidies, grants, and public infrastructural investment are targeted to individuals and firms, according to location?
Both, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) researchers in a recent world-wide survey of regional inequality, pointing out that the high cost of housing in high income regions and cities restricts domestic migration, while the rejuvenation of declining areas requires an expanded supply of locally available better paid jobs, supported both by an improved local skills base on the supply side and by rising demand for locally-produced goods and services.
A conclusion echoed in another recent paper on innovation policy, endorsed no less by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s human lodestar: an example of the flow of the intellectual tide mentioned above, but all much more in accord with the Labour manifesto than the Conservative one .
In the UK context, that means partnerships between Whitehall, devolved, and local government to attract and sustain private investment to lagging sub-regions and areas com, where possible linked to university and other sources of expertise that can lead best to the cluster development of productive enterprises, combined with targeted and efficient productive public investment in site preparation, affordable housing, education and skills, and above all in improved connectivity allowing people to access quality employment opportunities within reach of their existing homes.
Reducing the friction of travel Trans-Pennine and within the West Midlands are two of the more obvious examples of productive public infrastructural investment contributing to long-term prosperity.
Another practical example of the potential of public investment to raise productivity and growth in a balanced and equitable way is a sustained increased in investment on affordable housing to a broad steady-state level, meshed with the planned expansion of apprentice and training opportunities targeted to indigenous young people.
Besides its social impacts that should help to mitigate and avoid existing and future labour bottlenecks within the industry, while enhancing human capital and productivity outcomes and making them more balanced in income and spatial distributional terms, thus interlocking economic justice and efficiency in practice.
The costs of providing infrastructural investment should be reduced by directly tackling market failure and rent-capture. Speculation in land largely explains the escalating cost of buying a home, as is increasingly recognized across the political spectrum, most recently by the Conservative-leaning Financial Times journalist,Liam Halligan, in his recent book, ‘Home Truths’. Another example of the current flow of that tide that Labour is not harnessing.
The land root of the current crisis of housing affordability, indeed, must be overcome for real progress to be made in a way that impacts on the majority of those wishing to buy and rent affordable housing, not just those most likely to qualify for social housing.
It is quite likely that a Johnson Conservative Brexit government will pivot towards variations of such measures – at least in early rhetoric before the inevitable capture and perversion of ends and process by the same vested interests that fund the party, choke them.
Labour should occupy that ground during the last week of the campaign.
The October draft Withdrawal Agreement (WA) will pass parliament and the UK will leave the EU on the 31 January 2020 if the Conservatives do win a working majority on the 12 December.
How hard – and thus economically damaging – Johnson’s bad-Brexit turns out will then depend upon whether, despite his campaign rhetoric to the contrary, he extends the transition period beyond December of next year. Under the WA, he would need to make such an application next summer.
That crucial decision will overhang the UK’s entire political, economic, and social future.
Jeremy Corbyn was right therefore to tackle Brexit head-on as he did on Guy Fawkes Day at Harlow – the bellwether ‘Blue-collar Essex’ seat.
Much better to secure the best possible and least economically damaging deal with Brussels and offer that with Remain as a choice to the electorate with minimum fuss, than for the population to be stuck with a bad Johnson hard-Brexit that will sunder the UK, undermine peace in Northern Ireland (NI), and generate unnecessary economic costs, acting as a deadweight drag or worse on growth across the UK.
UK exit from the European Union (EU) Custom Union (CU) and the Single Market (SM) in economic and social consequence will bear disproportionately on the communities that voted to Leave, such as Harlow. Less well-connected places outside the South-east are likely to suffer the most: Sunderland and Dudley, to take two.
Labour must hammer home in an engaging way to the voters of those areas, often Labour marginal seat, the technical economic realities below.
The rules of origin requirements imposed as a result of the UK exiting the CU will progressively chip away the time and cost benefits of existing frictionless trade arrangements between the UK and the EU.
British exporters of goods to the EU post-transition will have to certify that a minimum proportion – varies with sector, but generally is around 50-55% – of value is attributable to domestic production.
This will prove a problem for industries now dependent on pan-EU integrated supply chains, namely motor vehicle, and some machine tools, food processing, and chemical sectors. The domestic -produced value of cars is less than 40%. A Johnson bad-Brexit will leave UK manufacturing to wither on the vine.
For the purposes of meeting rules of origin requirements included in pan-EU trade treaties with third countries, such as Korea and Japan, British manufacturing value-added no longer will contribute to the EU total they define, providing a disincentive for foreign direct investment in UK plant by companies wishing to benefit from tariff-free trade under such treaties.
Such countries are unlikely to prioritise FTA’s with the UK or Great Britain at the expense of their existing or future EU trading arrangements and a far larger potential market.
Crucially, the benefits of such FTA’s, even if realized, in any case, will prove puny, compared to the cumulative loss of GDP attributable to the loss of frictionless trade with our closest European neighbours.
In sum, export and export formalities, including customs and security declarations, risk-based inspections, tariffs (when goods are not covered by the FTA) and other taxes payable upon import such as VAT and excise duty, as well on physical border checks on products of animal origin: meat, fish and dairy products, will all impose additional cost and time barriers to trade in goods. Exiting the SM likewise will do to trade across services.
Johnson’s European Research Group (ERG) outriders bark back that is a price worth paying for taking back control of our borders (which ones?), money, trade policy, and laws.
But any future free trade agreement (FTA) with the US will inevitably involve loss of national sovereignty in practice to a government led by a president who avowedly ‘puts America first’.
Continuing EU membership will help the UK to stand up to Donald Trump, and, much more importantly, in the longer term, to address fundamental issues, such as climate change, the activities of increasingly monopolistic multi-nationals, tax evasion and money laundering, organized crime and terrorism, that transcend the UK border: the modern world, in short.
Besides it is doubtful that a wide-ranging trade deal with the US can ever be reached, given that freer access to American food imports will imperil the sustainability of British agriculture, a source of bedrock Tory support, while allowing access to American health corporations to the NHS and liberalising drug pricing controls is likely to prove too unpalatable on the wider domestic political front.
Trump is wedded not only to a neo-liberal and crassly unequal economic and social system, but to an odious and destructive political methodology driven by fake news, straightforward lies, media manipulation, and appeals to prejudice, seemingly copied and adopted by Johnson, at the behest of his main adviser, simply to secure power.
Something demonstrated in spades during this campaign. A case in point was Johnson’s statement on Twitter that a future Tory government would not extend the post-Brexit transition period and would pursue a “a super Canada-plus arrangement” with the EU not “based on any kind of political alignment.” subsequently reaffirmed, all in short order. That is simply hogwash, or in his own-speak ‘inverted piffle’.
The more comprehensive a FTA with the EU, the more time – years not months – that it will take to negotiate; and the greater the continuing alignment to EU rules, including labour, environmental and state aid rules entailed.
Such delay and alignment risks the ire of any enlarged hard-Brexiteer contingent within the new parliament and would provide oxygen to the Brexit party outside it; on the other hand, not extending the transition beyond December 2020 would simply create a new cliff-edge, and almost certainly induce recession.
A Johnson bad-Brexit may be done, but its consequences lurk in wait around the corner to bite, not least prolonged uncertainty lasting years, not six months or so, as would be the case with Labour.
Taken in the round, Corbyn on the Brexit front has played a difficult hand relatively well, with a sense of feeling for both sides, not always displayed when he pontificates on international issues, such as the Palestinian question.
His position, in many ways, makes more sense than the premature commitment to campaign for Remain displayed by prominent shadow cabinet colleagues. This puts the cart before the horse, insofar that Labour is committing to negotiating a soft Brexit with Brussels as an alternative to Remain in a second referendum.
Of course, the softer the Brexit, the stronger the relative case for Remain becomes: if continuing alignment with EU rules is accepted as economically necessary, why not then just stay and keep a say in their development?
Labour’s position is essentially thus a route to Remain while providing some semblance of respect for the result of the June 2016 referendum and ensuring whatever the result of any second referendum that economic damage is mitigated as far as possible: pretty sensible, really, in the circumstances, even if politically pragmatic more than strictly logical.
Yet it will not be enough.
Labour’s Brexit and domestic policies have not been connected nor linked to an overarching vision and narrative.
The cumulative damage to growth of a hard Brexit will act as a deadweight not only on the personal incomes of ordinary working people, but on the public finances.
The increased investment in health, housing, education, social care, police, and other public services the country needs, the Brexit-leaning communities most of all, will become increasingly unaffordable.
Labour must make that inter-linkage in the minds of undecided and wavering voters.
A following post will focus on that shortly as Labour necessarily reframes its electoral strategy to at least prevent a Johnson working majority.
Johnson concocted his game plan with Dominic Cummings – his Svengali-like adviser – in August: prorogue parliament for five weeks until 14 October, squeeze the time available for MPs to prevent a 31st October No deal EU exit, then a ‘Brexit done’ election before the economic and social impacts of a No deal exit were fully felt or exposed.
If his opponents in the Commons finally found the wherewithal and unity to legislate for an extension beyond the 31 October, the Plan B was to engineer an October election on a populist platform that parliament, by cutting the ground under the feet of his government’s negotiating position, had ‘surrendered’ to the European Union (EU) and ‘betrayed’ the ‘people’s’ 2016 referendum decision.
But before the first week of September was out, six Commons defeats in six days shredded that twin-track strategy.
The opposition parties, contrary to expectation, successfully and effectively combined with 21 resolute Conservative rebel MPs – who lost the party whip for their pains – to take control of the Order Paper to allow parliament to legislate an extension to Johnson’s ‘do or die’ Brexit 31st October exit date, and to reject his motion for an election to take place before the next and crucial 17 October EU Summit.
Unless the House of Commons approves (and the Lords takes note) by the 19 October of either (a) a Withdrawal Agreement (WA) deal with any changes to the accompanying political declaration or (b) a No deal exit, the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019 (the Benn Act) requires the government to seek an extension to 31 January 2020 from the EU.
Johnson declared a preference to ‘die in a ditch’ than do that. He continued to proclaim with cabinet colleagues into October that the government would, come what may, exit on 31 October while ‘observing the law’ to ‘get Brexit done’, without explaining how his government could do both without a deal.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on the 23 September that the proroguing of parliament by Johnson was null and void ‘as it never had happened’ on the core constitutional ground that it prevented parliament exercising its central role in our democracy to hold the government executive to account – something likely to recorded as a constitutional landmark for decades, if not centuries, ahead.
By the time his party conference had convened in Manchester, Johnson had unmistakably put a Trumpian-populist stamp on the Conservative Party, sacrificing and subordinating policy, values, and convention to the single purpose of getting Brexit done, regardless of its consequence or consistency, undermining the same institutions that Brexit was to restore sovereignty to.
Yet polling indications strongly suggest that Johnson’s reckless and divisive actions could still be rewarded with electoral victory, as were Trump’s in the US; one early in September gave Labour a puny 21% share of the vote; almost incomprehensible for an opposition facing such an incompetent and divided government, flouting established constitutional norms and conventions in an unprecedented – even revolutionary – way.
Sure, such polls taken in isolation are to taken with a pinch of salt as a guide to future voting in an actual general election.
Labour is banking on a similar bounce that it achieved in 2017 in the face of unpromising prior polling.
That said, an aggregated Poll of Polls time series produced by Politico starkly shows an unmistakable post-April trend of a Labour party led in opposition by a leader unprecedented in his unpopularity with the wider electorate, losing vote share to the Conservatives and a resurgent Liberal Democrats (LD).
In short, Labour remains stuck between the rock of a majority Remain party membership and the hard place of not alienating Brexit-supporting voters in many marginal constituencies, concentrated in, but not confined to the north and midlands.
Labour campaigning for Remain, attached with a logical commitment to revoke Article 50, risks failing to engage with voters who prefer a negotiated deal in preference to No deal, or to another referendum, or to revocation: quite possibly the silent majority who simply want Brexit washed out of their hair.
That a new Labour government would alternatively negotiate with Brussels to secure the best available Brexit deal for the UK but then campaign for its rejection in a promised subsequent referendum, however, comes across as faintly ludicrous.
A significant segment of the population supporting Brexit is likely to treat any such referendum as rigged, risking future and lasting damaging political and social effect.
Seeking to straddle that divide, Jeremy Corbyn resisted not only demands from his deputy Tom Watson and some erstwhile shadow cabinet supporters for a referendum to take place before the next election, but strong and growing grassroots pressure to morph further into a commitment for the party to campaign to Remain in a soon-expected election.
The party conference began inauspiciously with the architect of the party’s successful 2017 manifesto, Andrew Fisher, announcing his resignation, his letter shedding doubt on Labour’ electoral prospects and the ‘professionalism’ and ‘human decency’ to boot of his leader’s inner team.
But in the end, Corbyn succeeded in securing a narrow (and disputed) Conference decision for Labour electoral neutrality, but only after some old-fashioned backroom machinations and after making it, in effect, a personal confidence vote that alienated some of his bedrock Momentum support-base.
Labour was fortunate that the Supreme Court landmark decision distracted attention from its own Brexit discord and perhaps from some of its more half-formed policy decisions, such as ‘abolishing’ private schools and ‘expropriating’ their assets, that appeared to appeal to the party’s own populist gallery than demonstrating a carefully thought transformative programme – whether ‘socialist’ or ‘social democratic’ in preferred label – in practice capable of commanding the sustainable wider majority support that effective and lasting execution requires.
Most seriously and ominously, in the short-term, the party in general continues to lack a convincing fit-for-purpose unified Brexit narrative that can withstand the heat in and scrutiny of a general election, during which opponents will inevitably highlight previous claims ‘to respect the 2016 referendum’ as hollow and dishonest.
Indeed, the victories won in Parliament won during the first week in September risk proving Pyrrhic in electoral terms for remainers generally and for Labour especially, as indicated by the polling indications outlined above.
Some greater stirrings are reported of cross-party support to put in place subsequent to an October no confidence vote in Johnson’s government, a Jeremy Corbyn-led caretaker government with the remit simply to ensure an extension, which, once achieved would be followed by a November election with uncertain result.
Although the SNP are reported to have warmed to the prospect, the LD are most unlikely to want to make Corbyn prime minister – even for barely a month – unless it was the only possible – albeit messy and amenable to accident – means to avoid No deal.
Given that the Benn Act – despite Johnson’s bluster – is considered watertight by most experts, and is now underscored by the SC judgement, it is not.
Corbyn would probably be right to continue his cautious and maligned wait and see strategy to leave Johnson to come back empty-handed from the EU or with a negotiated deal that will inevitably be at odds with the ‘clean Brexit’ that the parliamentary Conservative hard-Brexiteers – many of whom act as a party within a party within the European Reform Group (ERG) – and the party members that propelled him to the premiership back in the summer, demanded and expected him to deliver.
Johnson can now safely ignore the party members who voted him into the leadership and effectively the prime ministership, but withdrawing the whip from hardcore ERG members is likely to shatter his party into fragments, providing manna from heaven for a Brexit party waiting in the wings to take votes and even seats off the Conservatives on a single issue Brexit betrayed’ platform.
As The Brexit Swamp Deepens and previous posts, explained, the EU will not remove the WA backstop unless Johnson reverted to the original EU proposal to create a single island of Ireland economic zone protected by a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea between it and Great Britain, once the transitional (implementation) period contained within the WA ended in December 2020.
Johnson appears to have realised the need to persuade the Democratic Union Party (DUP) and the ERG likewise to pivot towards it.
But even if Johnson could bring back a WA sufficiently re-packaged to get some of the Conservative rebels to support him in the lobbies along with DUP and ERG support (an unlikely but possible combination), he is unlikely to secure a parliamentary majority, unless he attracted sufficient Labour MPs representing Leave areas to support, in effect, a deal less close to their party’s requirements than his predecessor’s.
An alternative way to seek a parliamentary majority would be for his government to pivot towards a continuing Customs Union (CU,) and a large measure of regulatory alignment, certainly across environmental and social standards, with the EU.
That would be more in line with the final iteration of the May Deal that she would have likely to have offered had she not been forced out of the leadership, but anathema to the ERG, and contrary to the commitments Johnson has made as prime minister, let alone as leadership candidate. A technical extension at least to Johnson’s ‘do or die’ 31 October deadline would also be required.
Finally, but not least, it would need whipped Labour support to pass the Commons, which would not be forthcoming without a delaying ‘confirmatory’ referendum, whatever that might mean.
Whatever the new twists and turns that October will inevitably bring, the current parliament cannot break the continuing Brexit deadlock, unless MPs agree either a negotiated deal or another referendum. The chances of both appear next to nil.
The Benn Act, especially since the Supreme Court judgment underscored the illegality of the executive attempting to run counter of the expressed intention of an Act, should prevent a No deal exit, although the opposition parties should prepare for every eventuality, including Johnson resigning late into October as a way to secure a No deal exit by ‘accident’.
It cannot and does not, however, lay out a roadmap to a negotiated deal or, indeed, any way out of the Brexit deadlock.
Parliament is not in accord with the government executive; unless both compromise, a new Commons has to be elected to produce a government with an effective working majority to implement its chosen Brexit path – but that is an outcome far from certain with a 2019/2020 election.
Another hung parliament appears a more likely scenario than either an outright Conservative or Labour victory, but who knows.
What is more certain, however, is that for Labour to maximise its electoral chances, it needs to unite around what was decided, if not agreed, at its conference, and focus attention that a Labour negotiated exit would best protect the Union, the continuing frictionless trade with its largest trading partner and thus the manufacturing supply chains that many northern and midland towns rely on, pointing out that the future economic and social prospects of the families of ‘the many’, as well as their patriotic instincts, are best served by continuing close links with Europe, not the chimera of trade deals requiring the UK to shed much more sovereignty for much less economic benefit.
It should also integrate that Brexit message to its domestic policy agenda, exposing the superficiality and dishonesty of the Conservative slogans on investing more in infrastructure, and core public services, by linking a coherent and inclusive vision to radical, but prioritised and thought-through supporting policy programmes, not ‘goody-bag’ giveaways that the electorate is likely to view in a similar cynical and opportunistic light to that of its opponents.
Since the publication of The Brexit Swamp Deepens last week, Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed that Labour will require a second referendum and will back Remain against either a ‘Tory deal’ or ‘No deal’.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson – almost certainly the next leader of the Conservative Party – has stated that he will not tolerate the N.Ireland backstop staying within the Withdrawal Agreement(WA) , even if it was time-limited: a new hardline position endorsed also by Jeremy Hunt.
His position, taken at face value, effectively rules out a negotiated alternative to No Deal: the EU is not going to cave-in during September to rip out the heart of a WA that it has consistently confirmed as the only deal on offer; in contrast to revising the accompanying Political Declaration (PD).
The prospect of No deal has increased; and, if the UK does exit on the 31 October, Labour’s position will become irrelevant overnight.
Committed Conservative opponents of No deal if they are to prevent a No deal outcome will have to agree a common course of action themselves and with Labour, and vice versa.
Whether that is requiring a referendum, or an amendment to a no confidence vote ruling out No deal, or even a successful no confidence vote, to provide EU leaders with some unanimous and compelling cause to grant the UK a new extension, it really needs activation prior to their Summit on the 17/18 October.
It is unlikely that a referendum, which would be opposed in any case by some Lexiteer Labour MP’s, especially if designed to simply produce a Remain result, would prove that unifying factor.
A straight-forward referenda binary choice between Remain and No deal might have more chance of securing parliamentary support if the cliff-edge was all but reached, but then possibly too late, and still unlikely.
Parliament, even if given the means, and it did vote to prevent No deal, without a referendum, would still need to agree an alternative; it, however, appears irretrievably split between members seeking a negotiated deal and others wanting both a second referendum and to Remain.
Possibly, Johnson aims to increase the negotiating pressure on Brussels during September while also playing to the Tory membership and the European Reform Group (ERG) gallery; and, when his stance proves unsuccessful (while hoping that the EU will blink or splinter), he could change tack, just as the sand runs out.
Well, lets hope so, for the sake of the UK Union and its economy. In which case, as Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre recently proposed, extending the transition period to December 2022 or beyond, so allowing time for a Canada-style free trade deal to be progressed in line with a revised PD, while in the meantime retaining the benefits of frictionless trade with the EU making the backstop unnecessary, could offer him a way out, at least within Parliament.
Johnson could well – given his party backing – instead go for broke: exit with No deal, seek a fresh mandate, say, in Spring 2020, and bank on Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity with the wider electorate to carry him home.