Voter ID – in theory, practice and mirrors

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Chris Game

“ID cards for polls are nothing more than suppression of voters” – D Butler. I’d forgotten precisely when and where I first read this pronouncement – May 2021 in The Times, as it turned out – shortly after the Government’s Elections Bill, now Act, was published. But I certainly remembered it.

Partly the phrasing, as personally I’d have gone for “nothing less than”, if I was hoping to galvanise readers into outraged protest. The seriously striking bit, though, was obviously the author.

Since first becoming fascinated by elections and electoral studies – thanks initially to Prof Richard Rose at the Univ of Manchester, then the late Prof Tony King at Essex – there has only ever been one D Butler in that file of my academic consciousness. Populariser of the Greekish word ‘psephology’ for the study of elections, and original authority figure in the BBC’s General Elections coverage: Nuffield College, Oxford’s Sir David Butler, who died earlier this month, aged 98.    

I knew him – distantly, but sufficiently to know he’d never have uttered anything resembling that strongly opinionated opening sentence – and, of course, ’twas not he. Rather, as I almost immediately realised, it was Dawn Butler: recent candidate for Deputy Labour Party Leader and, it so happens, MP for the London Brent constituency in which I first voted – shortly before she was born.

All of which might have excused a quickish blog return to the contentious Voter ID issue – within weeks of its last coverage – even if it hadn’t once more been prominently in the news this past fortnight, with Parliament finally getting its first full sight of the Government’s Voter Identification Regulations and the Electoral Reform Society leading the call for a parliamentary inquiry into its implementation.

The Elections Act requires voters, from next May, to produce photo ID at UK Parliamentary and most English local elections. And now, a mere six months or so later, we – and the local election officials required to implement them – finally have the Government’s list of acceptable forms of ID and proposed guidelines governing initially next May’s council elections: Coronation permitting, in most English councils – though not Birmingham, to save you checking.

The guidelines run to just the 344 pages, taking effect probably in January. Leaving already pressured election officials with minimal time (and as yet undetailed costs, beyond a ‘ballpark’ £180 million per decade) to process and issue electoral identity documents for those who gradually discover they don’t have acceptable forms of photo ID. Plus the near certainty that at least some would-be, and quite likely upset, voters will be turned away at their polling stations – which could add to the fun for the small army of volunteer poll workers.

At which point I should indicate my personal viewpoint. Instinctively – and certainly predating Birmingham’s own 2004 embarrassment of six Labour councillors getting elected through what was judicially described as a “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud campaign – I’ve long broadly supported, in principle, stronger election integrity rules in general and photo voter ID specifically.

And I have recounted in these columns the reactions of some of my overseas students to the frankly casual ID confirmation procedures they’ve observed when accompanying me to the polling station. Their surprise at the staff’s indifference to whether I’ve brought my poll card identification; and almost shock as I ‘helpfully’ point on the register to what I claim is my name and address.

So why my support in principle for photographic ID – as well as nowadays that of a substantial majority of voters themselves and the conditional backing of the independent Electoral Commission?  Simples!  Elections are the engines of our democratic system. They should be seen by all as important, and that perceived importance is diminished by not having visibly more robust voter identification procedures – like virtually all other ‘democratic’ nations.

On the Crime Prevention Research Center’s database of Europe’s nearly 50 such countries, “only the United Kingdom” does not require government-issued photo voter ID to vote in national elections.

Correction!  Not the UK, just GB. Northern Ireland introduced voter ID nearly 20 years ago, and now has numerous forms of acceptable photographic ID – including, as well as passports and driving licences, a free Electoral Identity Card, plus senior, disabled and blind persons’ ‘SmartPasses’.

Since when, the Electoral Commission has found that, far from prompting polling day protest riots, voters’ confidence that elections are well-run has steadily increased to at least match the levels in other UK regions[1]. The demonstrable message has been not that we elsewhere in the UK are uniquely virtuous and trustworthy – though even Ministers concede that fraud levels are minimal, if not invariably seen as such. Rather, it’s that for us – and successive Governments – voting has been seen as less big a deal than, say, collecting a parcel at a post office.

Until now, that is, following a decade of quite dramatic change in the voting behaviour of particularly our 18 to 24-year-olds. Their turnouts are invariably lower than the average, but still high enough to hurt. In the 2010 General Election these mostly fledgling voters split equally across the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, roughly 30% for each. By 2019, almost overlooked in the Conservatives’ overwhelming win, it was Labour 52%, Conservatives 28%, Lib Dems 11%.

That’s what evidently prompted the rush – not ‘personation’ or fraud, which for polling station voting are acknowledged as negligible. Rather, a possible early General Election campaign in which the Conservatives don’t start way ahead of the field. It also explains why the apparently generous range of 21 acceptable forms of ID is clearly weighted towards the better paid and over-60s. Older Person’s Bus Pass, Oyster 60+ card, Freedom Pass (66+), Scottish National Entitlement Card (60+), etc. – all welcome. Those particularly applicable to younger people, like Student ID cards or Railcards, remain “unacceptable”, as in the original legislation.

Yes, as in Northern Ireland, free ‘Voter Authority Certificates’ will be available – including online – and a public awareness campaign will remind you and your selfie to apply in time.  And no, none of this remotely approaches the legalised voter suppression we saw in some of this November’s American state elections. But – to coin a dreadful cliché – it’s from the same partisan playbook.

As are the £1.3 million-worth of 40,000 mirrors and privacy screens – one of each per polling station – that desperately cash-strapped councils must provide to check on would-be voters with religious face coverings. But they may well prove worth a blog of their own sometime before next May.

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A slightly publisher-edited version of this blog appeared in The Birmingham Post, 17th November – https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20221117/textview


[1] Examples from the Electoral Commission’s ‘Winter Tracker’, Jan/Feb 2022:

   “Elections are affected by fraud/corruption?”  Total agree: 37%; W Midlands 37%; NI 30%.

Those “not confident that elections are well run: Some people have difficulties registering to vote”:                                          
Total agree: 20%; W Midlands 18%; NI 10%.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Are councillors safe? #DebateNotHate

Jason Lowther

Earlier this summer the Press Association reported an attack on an Edinburgh Councillor who was said to be very shaken up after he was confronted by a man he reported as ‘hurling verbal abuse’ at him as he was delivering leaflets in his ward at about 11.10am on Sunday, continuing ‘he then put his hand up to my throat and he then pushed the leaflet down the top of my shirt’ (PA Newswire: Scotland, 7 August 2022).  This isn’t an isolated incident, although media and government attention has often been focused on threats to British MPs, such as the tragic murder of Jo Cox, and violent conflicts in the USA.

The LGA submitted evidence to the 2019 House of Commons review of intimidation in public life, giving several examples of the intimidation of councillors including:

  • A Sandwell councillor’s car was forced off the road, and the authority used a court injunction to stop an abuser approaching two councillors.
  • A young female Conservative councillor decided not to stand for election again, citing the abuse she faced.
  • A disabled former council leader stayed away from a council meeting because he feared for his safety.
  • Abusive messages were sent to an Isle of Wight councillor’s daughter in the run up to a controversial decision.

The 2017 review of Intimidation in Public Life by the Committee on Standards in Public Life made recommendations to government, social media companies, political parties, the police, and others about the measures needed to deal with intimidation, which the Committee described as ‘a threat to the very nature of representative democracy in the UK’.  Three years on, the Dec 2020 progress report welcomed greater protections by social media companies, whilst noting the companies had still not enabled users to escalate potential illegal content online to the police.  All of the Westminster political parties have established Codes of Conduct that explicitly prohibit bullying, harassment and unlawful discrimination and some (the Labour Party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party) have signed the joint statement of conduct against intimidation.

Just over a year ago, LGA Labour Group leader Cllr Nick Forbes called for a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to the harassment of councillors and a ‘change in the law to protect us’ (Municipal Journal, 21 October 2021).  He recalled abuse over social media and dog mess being put through his door.  At the same meeting of the LGA’s executive advisory board, LGA deputy chair, Cllr Tudor Evans, who has been subject to a death threat, said: “we can’t tolerate this anymore”.  The meeting received a report which recommended a campaign focused on detoxifying public political discourse and improving the response to unacceptable behaviour, as well as developing a code of conduct for councillors.

Some guidance and support is available.  The LGA has published advice for councillors on handling intimidation, which it defines as “words and/or behaviour intended or likely to block or deter participation in public debate, which could lead to an individual wanting to withdraw from public life”.  The guidance includes the organisation of ward surgeries, such as avoiding holding solo surgeries in otherwise empty buildings, advice on home security, managing social media contact, and how to handle visitors to the councillor’s home address.  There’s also useful advice for councils on how they can support councillor safety. 

But more needs to be done. It is never acceptable for councillors to have to choose between feeling safe and serving their community. It’s wrong that social media companies don’t facilitate reporting to the police. All political parties should be signed up to conduct against intimidation. All councils should be reviewing the LGA advice to ensure their elected members are as safe as possible, and government should provide funding for the necessary security measures. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life concluded in a blog on progress since their report: “Intimidation and abuse have no place in a healthy democracy”.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

Picture credit: guystuffcounseling.com/

Voter ID gets Code Red

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Jason Lowther & Chris Game

‘Code Red’, for anyone even approaching the generation of this blog’s more senescent author, has to cue the memorable final Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson courtroom scene in Aaron Sorkin’s film, A Few Good Men. Indeed, said author has actually adapted and used it previously in these very columns:

Lieut. Kaffee (Cruise): “Did you order the Code Red?”  Col. Jessup (Nicholson): “YOU’RE GODDAMNED RIGHT I DID!!!”

In the film, ‘Code Red’ is a term used for any extra-judicial punishment or action taken against US marines for the purposes of humiliation or worse. Its function is, essentially, to deal with issues that can’t be solved using the normal legal framework.

In substantial contrast, the UK Government’s Code Red, though hardly a regular feature of our media’s political reporting, is at the very core of our modern-day governmental system. It is a (arguably the) key instrument of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), the Government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects, reporting to the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury.

Formed in 2016, the IPA’s intended function is to increase government efficiency and save public money by monitoring and ‘scoring’ the viability of its literally hundreds of infrastructure and major projects … and does so with an effectiveness that has some Ministers in the present Government viewing it as more of a PI(the)A.  

This already substantial introduction does have a local government-relevant point – promise!  And it is no blog’s function to deliver lecturettes, which in this instance are both available and well illustrated, from the Institute for Government and the IPA itself in its very recent 2022 Annual Report.

What follow, therefore, are a few shortish paragraphs outlining the IPA’s work, and two graphics from that 2022 Report worth, if not the proverbial thousand words, certainly a good many. We then focus on the issue of voter ID in England, reporting the government’s own assessment on the risks involved, and conclude that Government has still not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.

The focus of the IPA’s work is the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), comprising this year 235 projects with a total Whole Life Cost of £678bn and estimated “monetised benefits” of £726bn, delivered by 18 departments and their arm’s-length bodies.

The projects are divided functionally into four categories, biggest-spending being Infrastructure & Construction (70 projects: £339 bill. whole life cost; £356 bill. “monetised benefits”) – high investment projects, including improving the UK’s energy, environment, transport, telecoms, sewage and water systems, and constructing new public buildings. Dominated financially, and in the IPA’s ‘unfeasible’ delivery confidence rankings, by the Dept for Transport’s HS2 (£72 – 98 billion) and Crossrail (£19 billion+) projects.

Transformation and service delivery covers projects changing ways of working to improve the relationship between government and the UK people, and harnessing new technology. Example: Vaccines Task Force.

Military Capability ispretty self-explanatory. Example: the Future Combat Air System – clever, mid-2030s stuff like uncrewed aircraft and advanced data systems.

ICT projects enable the “transition from old legacy systems to new digital solutions” to equip government departments for the future. Example: Emergency Services Mobile Communications.

Now to the interesting bit: the actual ‘confidence rankings’, or in the above cases of HS2 and Crossrail ‘no confidence rankings’. The official term is Delivery Confidence Assessments (DCAs): judgements of the likelihood of a project delivering its objectives to time and cost.

In essence, it’s a basic traffic light system. Green represents high likelihood of successful delivery of the project on time, budget and quality; amber: successful delivery feasible, but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention; and ‘Code Red’: unachievable, not a cat in hell’s chance; major issues everywhere, with project definition, schedule, budget, benefits – all at this stage apparently irresolvable.

Given the variables involved, it sounds more than a touch crude, and two additional ratings were added: amber/green – successful delivery probable, if given constant attention; and amber/red – successful delivery doubtful, major risks apparent in numerous key areas, urgent action needed.

Usefully added, it seemed, as unqualified amber regularly took between 40% and 50% of ratings (see Fig.7 below). But no, looked at another way, the “average project rating worsened from Amber/Green in 2013 to Amber in 2020” (p.16). It obviously couldn’t possibly be the quality of the proposed projects, so it had to be the assessment system, which accordingly for the 2022 assessments was changed.

But oops! The number of red assessments nearly quadrupled, almost equalling the previous four years’ red totals between them – but that’s OK, because the average project rating, we are assured, “has improved over the past two years”, though it’s not entirely transparent in the second flow chart.

Which brings us back to Code Reds.  Unlock Democracy, the democratic reform campaign group – and also the Daily Mirror – reported last week that “the Government’s own rating system has given the Elections Bill implementation a code red, which is defined as successful delivery of the project appear[ing] to be unachievable.”  Followed by the Association of Electoral Administrators announcing that it “no longer believes it is possible to successfully introduce Voter ID in May 2023.”

The Government’s “Electoral Integrity Programme (EIP)” has been red rated in the IPA’s annual report (see page 58).  The report summarises the Programme as ‘implementing changes arising from the Elections Bill. The Elections Bill makes provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process. Reforms will cover: overseas electors; voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens; the designation of a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission; the membership of the Speaker’s Committee; the Electoral Commission’s functions in relation to criminal proceedings; financial information to be provided by a political party on applying for registration; preventing a person being registered as a political party and being a recognised non-party campaigner at the same time; regulation of expenditure for political purposes; disqualification of offenders for holding elective offices; information to be included in electronic campaigning material’.

DLUHC’s commentary on this result noted the deteriorating assessment and added: ‘The IPA Gate 0 Review of February 2022 concluded that the programme Delivery Confidence Assessment is rated Red and that the programme needs to address key risks related to the suitability of the structure, approach and governance given its complexity and delivery focus, suitability of its minimum viable and digital products, and its lack of contingency to deliver against immovable deadlines’.

Reassuringly, the department felt that ‘the programme is addressing these points’.   Meanwhile, the estimated ‘whole life costs’ of the programme jumped from just under £120m to over £145m.

Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake has reportedly written to Levelling Up SoS Greg Clark saying ‘It would be highly risky to attempt the first roll out of photo voter ID for the largest election in the UK, without having tested it on lower turnout elections beforehand’.  This echoes Jason Lowther’s comment on this blog almost a year ago that ‘The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution’.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

‘The Great Parliamentary Resistance’ – some of the outcomes

Chris Game

Back in early February, I wrote a blog dissecting one of two big and controversial Government Bills involved in what I slightly hyperbolically termed the “historic Monday evening of the Great Parliamentary Resistance” – Monday, 17th January, when the Elections Bill received its Third Commons Reading, while across the way the Lords were savaging the ‘flagship’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill by defeating the Government a Parliamentary record 14 times in the same sitting[1].

Both Bills, in being big and controversial, were fiercely contested throughout their Parliamentary progress and significantly amended – to the extent that my initial idea of highlighting and summarising such amendments in two linked blogs in, say, February and March, proved ludicrously unrealisable. Not least because neither received their Royal Assent until 28th April.

On the ball, as ever, Jason Lowther blogged immediately about the particular aspects of the now Elections Act with which he had been particularly concerned – the Government’s ‘solution’ to the undemonstrated ‘problem’ of ‘personation’, of having in future to show counter-signed photo ID at UK Parliamentary and English local and PCC elections.

This single blog, therefore, will attempt two ludicrously daunting tasks: (a) to at least mention some of the additional, less publicised, measures in or out of the Elections Act, and (b) similarly, but even more summarily, for the considerably more complex Police, Crime etc. Act.

There were two key and particularly controversial Elections Act proposals, that went down to the proverbial wire at the so-called Ping pong stage of the Parliamentary process (pp.79ff. of the H/Commons Library briefing noted by Jason).

First, obviously, the several proposed age-discriminatory and non-photographic forms of ID that had been in and out of the Bill throughout – mentioned again here frankly as a pretext for reminding anyone who needs it of just how long and how implacably opposed the PM himself has been to ID cards of any description, and accordingly what we can presumably look out for come Election Day.

election1

The other long-running dispute concerned the Act’s provision for the Government to set a “strategy and policy statement” for the constitutionally independent Electoral Commission.  Some suspicious Parliamentarians suggested this might go beyond scrutiny and accountability, and “potentially into providing guidance about how [the Commission carries out its] functions on a day-to-day basis”.

They wanted it “not bound by” the Government’s “statement”, but apparently they were guilty of a “mischaracterisation” of the Government’s intentions, and the relevant amendments were defeated.

The Government’s listing of the Act’s additional benefits appears, of course, on the relevant Gov.UK page – summarised under the comfort blanket of the several “greater protections” it provides for voters, and also for candidates and campaigners.

Protection from fraud through photo ID, of course, but also from intimidation at the ballot box – the latter by fines, up to 5-year bans, and even imprisonment for offenders convicted of attempting an extended definition of ‘undue influence’.

Voters with disabilities must in future be provided with specialist equipment, and may be accompanied by an adult.  And the 15-year limit on the voting rights of British ex-pats, retired or working abroad, will be removed. An estimated 3 million potential voters are currently affected by the limit, and – read into this what you will – it fulfils a pledge in three recent Conservative manifestos.

Finally – although it was actually the first bit of the legislation I blogged about, back last April – the Act will change the voting system for both Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections from the ‘transferable’/choice-extending Supplementary Vote to First Past The Post – on the basis of “no other plausible argument” than it might fractionally reduce the numbers of rejected ballots”.

I have views – as doubtless do Mayors Tracy Brabin (Lab – West Yorkshire), Ben Houchen (Cons – Tees Valley) and Andy Burnham (Lab – Greater Manchester), all recently elected after transfers – but not here.

And so to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – a real pantechnicon of a Bill/Act, highly technical in places, with even the ‘short’ and definitely the ‘long’ (150-word) titles signalling how impossible it is seriously to summarise.

It makes major changes across the criminal justice system, significantly extending police powers and the treatment of suspected, arrested, charged and convicted offenders. Again, there is a substantial (100+ pages) Commons Library summary of the whole legislative process; also a detailed House of Lords account – presented, slightly disconcertingly, in reverse chronological order – covering the fate of at least some of the Lords’ 17th Jan. amendments.

I was never keen on listing Wiki on student reading lists, but in this case I might well make an exception.  For this blog, though, I have borrowed (sounds so much better than plagiarised!) the content of the next few paragraphs from the BBC’s summary –mainly because it focuses, as many of those Lords motions did, on the implications for and threats to the right to protest.

Until now, it has generally been the police’s responsibility, if they want to restrict a protest, to show it may result in “serious public disorder, property damage, or disruption to the life of the community” (emphasis added). They can also change/restrict the routes of marches. For major events, like the COP26 protests, details are typically agreed with the organisers weeks in advance.

The new Act enables particular measures to be designed for ‘static protests’, like those of Extinction Rebellion, whose modus operandi is to force governmental action on the “climate and ecological emergency” through non-violent civil disobedience, the occupation of roads and bridges, etc.  Start and finish times and noise limits will now be set, even for protests involving just one person, with fines up to £2,500.

Edward Colston, the C18th merchant/slave trader whose statue was pushed into Bristol docks gets his own clause, with damage to memorials earning up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has described the “rushed” legislation as creating “incredibly widely drawn” powers …”, allowing the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including passers-by, people on the way to work and peaceful protesters.”

The Government/Home Office/Police viewpoint is set out in a Home Office Policy Paper.

[1] It appeared on 4th February, at the start of what proved a particularly active blogging month, with the consequence that, to access it, you may need to key ‘Older Posts’ at the end of the February 2022 selection.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

80% of councils directly involved (again) in delivering housing

Chris Game

If you’re an academic – either a genuine intellectual, theorising one, or a more lecturing, popularising one like what I was – there’s a good chance that the week before Easter is Conference Week.

It’s easy to mock, and knock, academic conferences. Too many delegates reading, rather than ‘presenting’, their papers; no time for proper interrogation, discussion and debate; mediocre university campus food. And for overseas conferences, add in climate threatening CO₂ emissions.

However, I like them – conferences, that is.  Indeed, this recent Easter week I racked up a full half-century of attending, at least intermittently, PSA (Political Studies Association) conferences.

Like most such events nowadays, this one was ‘hybrid’ – with panels attended partly in person, partly digitally via Zoom. Which makes genuine discussion additionally problematic, and emphasises the importance of the written papers addressing subjects that ideally are appealing, topical and even newsworthy.

Happily, in the Local Politics Specialist Group this is almost the norm. And this year one paper especially – in addition, obviously, to that of the INLOGOV’s Director, Jason Lowther (from ‘Birminham’, according to p.25 of the evidently un-proof-checked programme!) – struck me as both sufficiently important and timely to bring it to the attention of a couple of slightly wider audiences⃰.

Timely because we’re fast approaching the May 5th local council elections, and, if these councils’ controlling parties choose to draw voters’ attention to it, many could boast something they might well not have been able to even four years ago when these same seats were last collectively contested.

Specifically, over four in every five should be able to claim that they are genuinely and actively involved in the business of delivering social housing.  And if that doesn’t grab you, or you’re thinking: “well, isn’t that one of the main things councils are supposed to do?” – or maybe, as a Birmingham resident, you’ve heard of the 4,000+ homes built by the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, the City Council’s housebuilding arm, and assume that it’s fairly typical, rather than really exceptional – then I politely suggest you’ve rather lost the plot in recent years.

When I used to lecture to particularly overseas students about housing in England or the UK, I would use a couple of very basic graphs, similar to those illustrated here. The first showed the changing relative importance of our main housing tenures since 1919 – private rented, owner occupied, local authority, and housing association.

Tenure1

At the end of the First World War, the ‘big picture’ was straightforward: roughly 90% of housing stock was privately rented, 10% owner occupied. Councils were empowered to build ‘corporation housing’, but few did.  But the War changed everything. PM Lloyd George promised not just houses, but “Homes Fit for Heroes’, and the 1919 Addison (Housing, Town Planning, &c.) Act facilitated it. Council housing committees sprung up, generous subsidies were provided, and council estates mushroomed.

By 1939 over 10% of the population lived in council homes, and the numbers increased steadily post-war, with the Labour Government’s Town and Country Planning and New Towns Acts. At their 1950s peak, under Conservative Governments, councils were building nearly 200,000 houses a year – one completion every three minutes, if you were wondering.

By the 1970s over a third of England’s housing stock was ‘council’. Private renting had plummeted to below 20%, with owner occupation over 50% and rising, and housing associations just beginning to take off.

The 1980s Thatcher Governments’ priorities, though, were very different: a “property-owning democracy”, with successive ‘Right to Buy’ policies – requiring, rather than allowing, councils to sell off their housing stock, if tenants, particularly of larger, better-quality properties, wished to purchase.

Coupled with Treasury restrictions on councils borrowing money for capital expenditure, there began the long-term shift from council housing to housing associations or ALMOs (Arm’s-Length Management Organisations): from 7% of all social housing in 1980 to over 60% today, including virtually all new social housing.

On my second graph, of ‘Housebuilding Completions’ – albeit scaled for dramatic effect – the local authority line by the mid-1990s was barely distinguishable from the horizontal x-axis. Council house building on any significant scale virtually stopped, new homes countable in the hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands – until, if you peer extremely closely, you can just see the space between line and axis opening up in 2018.

Housebuilding

Sales meanwhile averaged well over 100,000 a year, re-boosted by increased discounts from the Coalition Government following the 2007/8 financial crisis. That same Coalition – or its Treasury – also imposed tightly restrictive ‘caps’ on councils’ ability to borrow against their own Housing Revenue Accounts in order to build affordable homes.

True, the 2011 Localism Act and other changes gradually empowered councils to work both like and with private sector companies. But it was really only when, several years later, Theresa May announced to her October 2018 Party Conference that she would ‘ditch the cap’ that councils’ widespread re-engagement with housing provision seriously took off.

There were and still are significant hurdles: tenants’ right to buy, planning constraints, the need for more grant funding. But the climate has indisputably changed, and at least some of the circulating local election manifestos will surely contain the evidence.

The reason I’m confident of this is that one of the York conference sessions I attended was presented by Bartlett School of Planning’s Professor Janice Morphet, who, with her colleague Dr Ben Clifford, recently completed the third of their series of biennial surveys of councils’ engagement in the provision of affordable housing.

I was aware of this work, but frankly had no real idea of its scope, depth, rigour or even of the sheer quantity of data the surveys produced and made available, in both the respective main reports and the separate desk survey reports. Seriously impressive – and obviously impossible to do any kind of justice to here.

Hence the focus on what has been one of the surveys’ particularly key and consistent findings, summarised here in a couple of quotes: first from Morphet herself, then from the recent third survey’s Executive Summary:

“The third wave of research shows how local authorities are directly engaging in housing provision [and] that this has moved from a marginal to a mainstream issue.”

“From the desk survey, we found that in comparison with 2017 and 2019, the number of councils with [housing and/or property] companies … has increased from 58% in 2017, 78% in 2019 to 83% in 2021 … From the direct survey, we have found that 80% of local authorities now self-report that they are directly engaged in the provision of housing, a notable increase from the 69% … in our 2019 survey … and the 65% from the 2017 survey.”

Who said academic conferences are an indulgent waste of time?

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⃰ A slightly abbreviated version of this blog – “Candidates will be homing in on a growing council priority” – appeared in the Birmingham Post on April 28th –  https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20220428/281951726382871

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

What ID for Voter ID? 

Jason Lowther

Photo credit: Liz West, https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/

Last October, I wrote in this blog about the many positive aspects of the Elections Bill currently working its way through parliament.  It clarifies what “undue influence” on voters means, improves poll accessibility, reduces the risk of intimidation of candidates and requires all paid for digital political material to have an imprint.  The big problem, though, is the plan to require voters to present certain restricted types of identification in order to vote.  This month the House of Lords voted to mitigate this problem.

As part of the “Report Stage” of the bill, on 6th April the Lords agreed an amendment which radically expands the range of identification documentation which voters could use.  The new list is fairly extensive including an adoption certificate, bank or building society statement, P45 form, asylum seeker letter from the Home Office, and even a library card or National Railcard. 

In the debate, Cross-bencher Lord Woolley of Woodford claimed that the government had failed to make a convincing case on voter fraud – quoting one conviction from 47 million voters, which he likened to the chance of winning the national lottery jackpot.   He said that the cost of insisting on photographic ID could be to disenfranchise 2 million voters.

For the Greens, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb labelled the policy ‘a cynical ploy’. She went on to claim: “It is a clear attempt by the Government to make it harder for people to vote in elections. That is the only motive I can see when we have this sort of Bill in front of us. More cynically still, it will disproportionately stop BAME, working-class, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people voting. These people find it hard enough to vote already. Anything you put in their way will stop them voting completely; that is preventing democracy’.

One of the amendment’s sponsors, Conservative former cabinet minister Lord Willetts, said that there was little concern with voter personation in the mainland and raised the concern that a future government elected with a small majority could face questions if significant numbers of voters had been unable to vote due to the new requirements.  He concluded that the amendment was ‘protecting our system from a major political and constitutional risk while remaining consistent with the manifesto on which the Conservative Party fought the last election’.

The vote on ‘Amendment 8’ in the Lords was 199 to 170, with three Conservative peers in favour and 155 against.  The House of Lords has its final sitting on the Report Stage on Monday (25th April), after which it will complete the Third Reading before the bill returns to the Commons for its consideration of the amendments.  The Government is known to be concerned at the inclusion of ID which does not have a photo, so the amendment is likely to be further challenged.

UPDATE (30/4/22): As anticipated, the Government rejected Amendment 8 in the Commons as the Government’s view was the types of ID listed were not sufficiently secure and might be prone to fraud. More detail is available in the excellent summary by Elise Uberoi and Neil Johnston for the House of Commons Library here.

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (writing in a personal capacity).