The GK Strategy team is delighted to publish its latest ‘What would Labour do?’ report. This time, our expert team focuses on health and social care, with both sectors likely to be hotly contested in the run up to the election. Find GK’s latest report here: What would Labour do – Issue No.4
GK Associate Director David Mitchell looks at the Labour Party’s reshuffle of its Shadow Cabinet, and what we can understand from Sir Keir Starmer’s new look team.
The Leader of the Opposition’s Office has invested enormous energy to underpin the value of message discipline into the Labour ranks in the first half of this year. This has centred around the importance of fiscal responsibility, which must trump all else. As Parliament returns today, Keir and his team has convened a team that has experience and consists of media performers to communicate that message to the voters.
The influence of Labour’s most electorally successful leader Tony Blair was evident in today’s reshuffle. From a commitment over the weekend not to raise income tax in the next Parliament (similar to the run up to the 1997 election), to today’s announcement that saw the promotion of Blairites such as Pat McFadden and Liz Kendall. The former was Blair’s Political Secretary and will now take up the role of Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and National Campaign Co-ordinator. In this role Pat will be responsible for ensuring the party is externally aligned across all shadow departments, as well as ensuring a co-ordinated message is presented to the electorate.
This reshuffle was not just about the removal of the remaining remnants of the Corbyn years but was notable for the pivot away from those seen as from the ‘soft left’ of the Labour Party. Lisa Nandy, seen as the face of this wing of the Party, has found herself demoted from the strategically important levelling up brief to Shadow Cabinet Minister for International Development. In this context, today’s reshuffle reflects not just a gradual move in the political direction of the Labour Party, but a substantial positioning of the Party in the centre ground.
The decisiveness of Keir’s reshuffle today is a culmination of changes through the party’s structures including the National Executive Committee, but also a reflection of a healthy and sustained polling lead that the Party has held since the start of 2022. Of course, Keir does not have everything his own way. His relationship with Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, which has been described as ‘tense’ and ‘challenging’ saw Angela emerge as a big winner, adopting the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister and Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling up brief.
This is a team that Keir is now confident that he can go to party conference in Liverpool in a few weeks’ time, and present as a government in waiting. LOTO will be aware there will be a buoyant atmosphere and excitement with delegates and activists in attendance, he will now hope his new team will importantly rub off with the voters watching at home.
GK interns Olivia Warr and Yusaf Hassan take a deep dive into what the new North Sea oil and gas exploration licenses mean for the UK’s net zero targets.
The Prime Minister’s announcement that the Government would grant 100 new North Sea oil and gas licenses was met with dismay by both climate activists and the Opposition, with Shadow Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, arguing that Sunak’s “weak and confused policy… will do nothing for our energy security and drive a coach and horses through our climate commitments”.
The Prime Minister positioned the move as a refusal to bow down to dictators threatening the UK’s energy security. However, the announcement comes amid a broader shift under Sunak’s watch to less enthusiasm for costly green policies following the Conservative Party’s narrow win in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election – largely attributed to the unpopularity of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion. Having already spent months criticising Labour over funding links to activist group Just Stop Oil, No.10 sees the cost of meeting certain green commitments as a clear attack line for the upcoming election season.
The Conservative Party’s messaging will have to be precise, however, to not risk losing control of the narrative. Net zero has huge support among the electorate (a recent YouGov poll had support for the 2050 target at over 70%) and among a large portion of backbench Conservative MPs. If the Prime Minister is seen to be reneging on the Government’s emission-cutting commitments, it could become disastrous for his electoral prospects. What he hopes to exploit, though, is the unease about personal lifestyle or financial implications of certain policy initiatives – as evidenced by the strength of opposition to the ULEZ policy expansion. Sunak hopes to portray himself as the common-sense candidate during a cost-of-living crisis; not taking radical action to hurt people’s bank accounts and showing Keir Starmer to be in the pocket of climate radicals who will hurt the economy for their own agenda.
He will be nervously gauging the reaction of his party. Already, the influential Conservative MP, Chris Skidmore, who recently completed an independent review of the Government’s net zero policies, has slammed the plan, stating it is “on the wrong side of the future economy”. Tory MPs at risk from Liberal Democrat challengers at the next General Election may also be concerned about the opinions of their environmentally conscious constituents. Young people, too, are unlikely to be enamoured by Sunak’s pivot as mainland Europe feels the heat of the climate crisis.
The extent to which Labour can attack the Government’s policy is limited, however, after the Party confirmed they would not revoke any of the licenses issued. This has been seen by some as implicit approval of the plan and perhaps an indication that they quietly also see it as a necessary evil to ensure energy security.
But to what extent will the policy announcement achieve its energy security objectives?
The claim made by the Government is that sourcing oil and gas closer to home would reduce emission production by three to four times whilst lowering import costs. Sunak argues that, given the UK is still forecast to be reliant on fossil fuels for one quarter of its energy needs by 2050, the new licenses would not jeopardise the net zero target. Meanwhile, investing in a Carbon Capture Cluster (CCS) through the Acorn Project in Scotland provides the infrastructure to decarbonise North Sea activity, mitigating those emissions that will result from the new drilling sites, while also generating jobs and investment in Northern Scotland.
However, Sunak’s proposal raises some questions. In terms of tackling the cost-of-living crisis and cementing energy security, there’s no guarantee that the newly extracted oil and gas will be cycled directly into the UK market to provide any benefits. The Climate Change Committee in their 2023 report to Parliament suggested there would be minimal impact on domestic prices from this investment. The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) also explained that it would take a minimum of five years before sites could become operational – reducing the short-term benefits of the scheme. Furthermore, while the £1 billion dedicated to the CCS is a mitigatory step in reducing emissions, Sunak has refused to be drawn on whether the development of the infrastructure will be sufficient to match the increased emissions, nor has he committed the extraction licences to be conditional on the emissions’ removal.
It remains to be seen whether the current Government – or indeed any future governments – will be able to make significant progress towards the legally-binding net zero target with the lighter touch, less intrusive approach that Sunak is leaning towards in his bid to keep voters onside, or whether the Prime Minister will be forced to take more dramatic, potentially unpopular, action to ensure the goal is met. The UK’s reputation as a global leader in setting climate change goals is strong, following on from a successful COP summit in Glasgow two years ago, but its ability to deliver on them hangs in the balance.
GK consultant Milo Boyd assesses the new proposals from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for nationally significant infrastructure, and if these will truly get the UK planning system firing on all the right cylinders.
The planning system has long been viewed as one of the things that has hamstrung the UK and its growth, particularly in the case of energy and transport infrastructure. Too often, the planning system has been the way that so-called ‘‘NIMBYs’ have been able to stymy any new developments that impact them locally, despite arguments in support of their national importance.
Planning remains a considerable hurdle for the Government if it is serious about achieving its net zero objectives. Onshore wind energy has perhaps been the best example in recent years of how the planning system has hindered the rapid and necessary development of cheap and vitally important infrastructure. In 2015, the UK Government effectively gave local communities the right to veto windfarms by stipulating that they have the final say over whether onshore wind farm applications get the go-ahead in their area. That move, coupled with a removal of subsidies, brought onshore wind installations to an immediate and almost complete halt, the cost of which we are all feeling.
According to IPPR, where England had previously been making modest yet steady progress with onshore wind before the effective ban in 2015, the years since have seen the number of sites receiving planning permission fall off a cliff. Of those which did receive approval, they generate just 0.02% of the target for onshore wind set by the National Grid Future Energy Scenarios, putting England thousands of years behind schedule of its targets for onshore wind.
Now, the Government and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) have outlined a number of new proposals which aim to deliver a system with more flexibility for nationally significant infrastructure (NSIPs) development to take place. The proposals fall broadly into 3 areas of reform:
- Operational reform to support a faster consenting process;
- Recognising the role of local communities and strengthening engagement; and
- System capability – building a more diverse and resilient resourcing model.
These proposals form part of the Government’s wider ambitions to stimulate growth and create jobs, as well as ensuring that the UK power, waste and water, and transport systems are future proofed. Removing burdens is viewed as a one of the key ways that the Government can promote new opportunities, scale up training and build a more dynamic workforce. In doing, it provides a good deal more certainty and confidence for the promoters and developers of projects – something that is vital for investment. This is something that has similarly been trailed by Labour in recent months, advocating for planning reform to reverse the UK’s sluggish growth and remove barriers to investment in new industries. It is unclear as of yet what Labour’s response to this consultation will be, but it seems likely given recent announcements that Labour will follow a similar tack.
The most eye-catching of the Government’s announcements is a ‘new’ fast-track route for certain projects, which builds on the fast-track system first proposed in 2016 under the Housing and Planning Bill. What is most useful about this measure is that if infrastructure projects are deemed to deliver tangible environmental or community benefits, they can be fast-tracked through the planning process if they meet the proposed quality standards, and – owing to their tangible benefits – quickly sidestep any potential local opposition. The scope of this is also broad, covering energy, water and waste facilities, and transport, thus going beyond the Housing and Planning Bill’s ambition to galvanise housebuilding and meaning that a wide range of projects will be able to benefit from DLUHC’s new measures.
To complement the fast-track route, there is real focus on the pre-application stage of the planning process. and new, targeted input from the Planning Inspectorate for applicant projects. To ensure that those projects which successfully apply to the fast-track route speedily receive consent, the Government is effectively seeking to ensure that any practical hurdles are overcome at the pre-application stage. This would mean that the process for projects can essentially be streamlined to move from acceptance to decision within a shorter maximum examination timescale of 12 months, whilst striking a balance between external consultation and ensuring that involvement is very light touch. Government proposals aim to ensure a limited number of meetings are held during the pre-application process. Following this, any further meetings should only be held at key milestones of the project.
Overall, the fact that the reforms aim to considerably streamline processes for NSIPs is positive. Of course, what the final proposals look like is still up for consultation, but seeking to ensure that projects do not have to jump through a prohibitively high number of hoops will no doubt give investors and developers a heightened degree of confidence that their projects will get off the ground.
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GK consultant Noureen Ahmed examines the key aspects of the Department for Education’s Early Years Foundation Stage Framework consultation, and what it means for the early years sector.
Over the past few months, the topics of childcare and early years education have been at the forefront of conversations within the education sector. The range of measures introduced in the Spring Budget 2023, including the significant funding commitment toward childcare provisions does illustrate the Government’s ambition to improve the early years landscape. Overall, the attention that childcare and early years education have accumulated is encouraging and we do expect to see this continue going forward. Nevertheless, it is also important to acknowledge the number of issues the early years sector is currently facing.
The daunting cost of living crisis, which has further exacerbated issues facing working parents and families, alongside the rising cost of childcare, certainly doesn’t alleviate the situation. England is emerging as one of the most expensive countries in the world when it comes to the cost of childcare. This is evident from a recently published report which found that “a UK couple where one parent earns the average wage and the other earns two-thirds of the average wage spends 29% of their wages on full time childcare.”
Proposals outlined in the Spring Budget 2023 included the expansion of 30-hour childcare to working parents of all children over the age of nine months and additional funding for schools and local authorities to implement ‘wraparound care’. Concerns have arisen over the expectation that the plans aren’t expected to come into effect until 2024/25, although it is important to note that the delays are intended to ensure nurseries are given sufficient time to prepare for these changes.
The Department for Education (DfE) appears committed to understanding the range of issues facing and launched a consultation in May 2023 to examine and scrutinise the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (EYFS). This is a mandatory framework for providers ensuring that children ‘learn, develop, and are kept healthy and safe.’ Key proposals outlined in the consultation include:
- Removing the requirement for Level 3 early educators to hold a Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent) maths qualifications, and instead apply this requirement to managers only.
- Introducing an ‘experience-based route’ so that otherwise suitable practitioners who don’t hold an approved Level 3 qualification have a path to gaining ‘approved status’ without having to do a new qualification.
- Changing the qualification requirements for ratios so that they would not apply outside of peak working hours.
The sector has been keen to stress the importance of delivering high quality early years education and care for all children; according to the DfE, the qualification changes are intended to do exactly that, as well as improving flexibility for providers and provide more opportunities for practitioners to join the workforce.
So what might this consultation mean for the sector?
Whilst it is encouraging to see the DfE propose improvements to the framework, it is also important for the Government to make sure it fully understands what exactly the sector is truly asking for. With a range of issues facing the sector, including recruitment issues, inflexibility regarding staff qualifications, and most recently, the Government’s proposal to relax staff-to-child ratios for two-year-olds in England from 1:4 to 1:5, there are concerns that this would impose added strain on providers, given their primary purpose is to provide high quality childcare education for all.
Nevertheless, the consultation, which recently came to a close, should have presented an opportunity for nurseries, childminders, providers, and parents to voice their views.
The sector should prepare for a number of changes, namely the plan to remove the requirement for level 3 educators to hold a level 2 maths qualification and changing the percentage of level 2 qualified staff required per ratio in an attempt to boost the workforce and make it easier for people to join the sector. If implemented, these changes would likely be welcomed by the sector as it creates more opportunities for those who have a passion in joining the sector but shy away because they are not currently equipped with the necessary qualifications.
Overall, it is positive to see a heightened focus on the sector, which is expected to continue ahead of the next General Election. The consultation clearly presents a valuable opportunity for the Government to demonstrate its commitment to valuing and protecting the Early Years staff while simultaneously ensuring that all children are provided with the support and care they rightfully deserve.
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GK Associate Sam Tankard analyses the recent announcement from Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, on the Government’s plans to boost urban regeneration and kickstart new development, and what we can understand from the Labour Party’s response.
Michael Gove announced this week a long overdue relaxation of planning rules to boost urban regeneration, bringing life back into the Government’s neglected commitment to levelling up the UK. The plans include setting up more than a dozen new development corporations, that would be able to use compulsory purchase orders to boost building and attract investment, akin to the hugely successful regeneration of the London Docklands. It will also relax permitted development rights, making it easier for disused office buildings to be converted to residential, all of which should come as a welcome package of policies for developers, businesses, and aspiring homeowners alike, all keen to see the densification of key cities.
One of the flagship examples announced to bring forward new homes, is the proposal for a new Cambridge Urban Quarter. The Quarter is designed to couple gentle density seen in many European cities and parts of London, with improved landscaping and infrastructure, with the aim of unlocking investment in the city’s growth areas of life sciences and tech R&D. This is something the city has sorely missed out on over recent years, while international competitors like Boston have soared ahead.
Indeed, this set of policies is shrewdly targeted at voters most at risk of fleeing the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats, demonstrated by recent by-elections in Conservative heartlands. By focusing the message on urban development, it focuses any future housing development in building up density in cities rather than urban sprawl into green space. This combines neatly with Sunak’s recent commitment to protecting the Green Belt around cities, and criticising Labour for the opposite.
However, the limitation of the Green Belt poses a much bigger problem for all stakeholders, having traditionally driven housebuilding in out-of-town developments instead of expanding cities themselves, therefore often encouraging urban sprawl further.
If properly implemented with the ambitious devolution agenda that has been set out, including 20 regeneration zones and investment zones, we could see the investment into the built environment required to really level up our industrial centres. Sunak will also hope it appeals to the middle of the road millennial voters who feel they are being priced out of cities, as well as those who oppose new homes due to lack of infrastructure.
What is Labour’s response?
This presents a significant challenge to Labour, who themselves are being urged to embrace a new levelling up agenda, which has so far been absent from Starmer’s Five Missions. However, Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy has openly committed to radical planning reform to boost building, including building on the Green Belt, restoring housing targets, and making social housing the second highest form of tenure. In response to Gove’s plans, Nandy has criticised the Government for offering more empty promises, and for overseeing housebuilding which is at the lowest rate since WWII. Importantly, however, levelling up goes beyond just housebuilding, and revolves significantly around investment into local public services, prioritising education and early years, as well as attracting and supporting businesses in growth areas.
Therefore, Labour needs to look to capitalise on the separation created between Conservatives and Labour on the issue of Green Belt development and be braver to articulate what is possible from a comprehensive levelling up programme. This programme must reflect the full suite of issues that comprise sustainable and equitable levelling up. This will not only present a more ambitious levelling up agenda that delivers on chronic housing supply issues, but also brings disillusioned renters with them.