Q&A: Bob Neill MP on London Conservatism, Brexit and the capital’s future

by Dave Hill

Bob Neill has been the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst since winning a by election in June 2006. Before that he was a member of the very first London Assembly, elected in 2000 and serving as an AM until 2008, for some of that time as Tory group leader. He currently chairs the Commons Justice Select Committee and has also been a member of the London Finance Commission. We met in his office in Portcullis House.

Question: When you look ahead, how do you see the next part of the London story unfolding?

Answer: I see more challenges than I have for a very long time. There is inevitably the Brexit-related one about a city that has thrived on the service economy and an innovation and knowledge-based economy, both of which have benefitted from being in the EU. That’s why I regard the most important part of the Brexit deal for my constituents to be making sure that we get a deal around financial services. They feed the rest of the London food chain, if you like.

We also need a very sensible, very light touch immigration regime, so that we’ve still got quality people coming in. That is a real challenge for London, and people underestimate it. I’m not put off by the [Michel] Barnier argument that the City can’t expect any special deals. I think there will be some tough trading, but there are ways we can get a sort of equivalence arrangement rather than passporting. People often forget how the financial services sector and the professionals that work with it, and their suppliers, has shaped London over the last 30 years or so, ever since Big Bang.

That’s a success story. But we’ve not yet coped with some of the pressures that have come with it. You’ve got a city that is in some respects more polarised. Some of the racial polarisation is probably not as bad as it was – compared with when I was involved in London politics in the 1980s, I think we’ve made some really good strides. But it is more polarised in terms of affordability of housing, and nobody has yet, I think, grasped the nettle on that. None of the Mayors have succeeded, although they’ve all made a stab in different ways. And I’m not sure any of the political parties have yet come up with an answer either. If the youngsters that you have to have in London to make its economy work are going to be able to afford to live in London, then that’s a serious flaw with housing them here, both socially and in terms of the city’s sustainability.

So those are the fundamental challenges: firstly, keeping the goose that lays the golden egg alright and, secondly, dealing with housing. And probably another part of it is dealing with skills as well. We’ve got lots of people doing really high value jobs. Before I went to Chislehurst I lived on the Isle of Dogs. You couldn’t see a more obvious example of polarisation than there. Within a quarter of a mile of Canary Wharf you had real social deprivation, and much of that was youngsters who didn’t have the skill sets to make them employable. [Since then], state schools in London have really started to turn around, so there’s reason to be hopeful on that. But we’ve got to make sure all the time that those skills are aligned with a changing job market.

Q: How can that misalignment be corrected?

A: I think we need to be more vigorous about it. We have to do more to shift the emphasis onto vocational and technical stuff, including a lot of tech and IT-based skills and so on. We are still, perhaps, dealing with the consequences of having rather  artificially pushed 50% into universities. That might not have been the right answer. There’s still more we need to do about making the linkage between the schools, the Further Education sector and industry. The devolution of skills to the Mayor ought to create an opportunity to do that. But we need a bit more vigour on it. I don’t think there’s enough buy-in from either side yet, as far as I can see – from the industry side or the local government side. And the education world in particular has been a bit purist about it. So I think that’s a real challenge for the Mayor to drive that even further. And maybe we should make sure that every secondary school and every FE college has a member of the business community in its area on the board of governors.

Q: You mention devolution as a desirable objective in general. You are a former member of the London Assembly. We’ve seen the mayoralty and the GLA evolve. What do you make of its progress so far?

A: I think there’s more positive than negatives. It’s become an established institution and doing that was a task in itself. It’s given London a figurehead and something of a bully pulpit for making the London case. That’s been good. I think we have seen improvements in the transport system. I contrast the improvements we’ve seen in the Underground and with buses in some ways, with what we’ve seen with suburban rail services. I do think that direct political control has been a plus. And there has been an improvement at least in the accountability of the police.

I think the promotion of London and business through that partnership with the GLA has been pretty good. Some of the environmental stuff has been good. The planning has been a mixed bag. I think there is a need for a strategic planning authority in London, but I don’t think we’ve yet resolved the potential conflicts between the GLA and the boroughs. And that’s a tension I can remember going back to the old GLC [Greater London Council] days. That needs just a bit more bottoming out. And the final bit is that we’ve had different views – Boris [Johnson]’s view as opposed to Ken [Livingstone]’s – about how you use the planning powers. At the end of the day, I’m not sure anyone’s got it quite right.

Q: What would be right?

A: I agree that in some areas we have to build at higher densities. I think there are some bits of the London green belt which you need to grade. There’s some that’s really important and valuable, and certainly shouldn’t be built on. But there are other parts, particularly round the Thames Gateway, where you could certainly look again.

Also, I don’t think any of the Mayors have grasped the issue around publicly-owned brownfield land that could be redeveloped, not necessarily GLA controlled land. They’ve said they will, but it’s taken a long time to get that through. The Mayor ought to be tasked with having a register of all publicly-owned land, regardless of the agency and we ought to be banging on the doors of, for example, the NHS asking why they haven’t disposed of some of what they have. We should be building up into the airspace around some of the big transport nodes. With Boris, there was a missed opportunity with Old Oak Common by not doing the piling you needed to be able to build over the Crossrail depot. Basic things like that. At Bromley South station in my constituency you could easily deck over and build something on the top there.

The final thing is the model on housing. Ken and Sadiq have pushed pretty much down the social rented model, and there is a need for some of that. But a hell of a lot of the people in London are working at a level where they are never going to qualify for publicly subsidised housing of that kind, yet they’re not going to get on the housing ladder either. We’ve not done enough to push that intermediate stuff, so I really think that has to be the centrepiece in London, even more than the social rent. My main concern with Sadiq is that he’s being too rigid with his 35% threshold [for affordable homes on private developments]. Because of the variable nature of land values in London, you’ve got to be prepared to flex a bit on that. As an overall objective it’s fine, but I think you’ve got to give way a bit on particular sites.

Q: Some people, including supporters of Sadiq, think he’s maybe a little bit too cautious in general.

A: Maybe. Maybe it’s the nature of Sadiq as a politician. And if you’ve survived the London Labour party all those years it might not be surprising! I say that as an outsider, of course. My sense is that he’s got some people he’s worked with for a long time, who he is close to – and I can understand that. But I think, for example, Ravi Govindia [the Conservative leader] in Wandsworth and he have been able to have a conversation from time to time. There’s no reason why politicians shouldn’t have those kinds of relationships. I was happy to serve on the Crossrail 2 growth commission when Sadiq reconstituted it and the London Finance Commission when he brought it back. At the end of the day he’s got a mandate. I might try and get him defeated at the next mayoral election, but it’s quite important that we work together. You have kindly said that I’m a consensual politician and I think London needs consensual politicians.

Q: Can you say some more about London’s policing?

A: There’s still a way to go with efficiency in some areas. When I talk about the 1980s and some of the social tensions there were, that was partly because of tension between young black youths and the police. Generally, since there’s been that political accountability at a local level rather than just through the Home Secretary. I think that community emphasis in policing has been good.

I think there’s a problem sometimes in the way officers are tasked. I get the impression from talking to them that there’s still quite a lot of form-filling involved. We’re trying to get that much more online now, which makes sense. I’m still not sure there isn’t a certain amount of dead weight carried at the administrative levels. I’m not sure we couldn’t move to a system where officers are more based in the community. The canteen culture has always seemed to me a little bit odd. When you go to New York you find officers have their lunch in the local cafés. Little things like that.

With operational efficiency, I think it’s mixed. There is a little bit of concern about morale. I have a worry about the middle management levels. I think the senior people, like [Met commissioner] Cressida Dick, are very impressive. But very often it’s the line managers, the sergeants and the inspectors, who are key players in this. Are they really skilled up for those people management roles – managing the team and getting best use out of people’s time, how they operate the custody suites and so on? There have been improvements in all of those things, I don’t think it’s all negative. As we’ve taken out quite a bit of money it becomes harder to drill down on the remaining bits, but they’ve got to.

It’s also the basics of the customer service operation where I think they are still lacking. That damages trust and confidence. And for most people, the Joe and Joanna Public of Bromley, that’s their most likely interaction [with the police]. I think they are entitled to be regarded as a higher priority. If there’s still a problem with the police, it’s perhaps a bit process-driven still, a bit inward looking, rather than thinking, these folk, the public, are our customers.

Q: You got noticed a year or so ago for criticising the transport secretary for not giving TfL control over more suburban rail services. You even called for him to resign. What are your reflections on that situation now?

A: I still think it was a missed opportunity and badly handled. There was an opportunity to split up and redesign the Southeastern franchise. I think there’s an almost inherent conflict between the longer distance trains coming up from the coast, which are actually more profitable in terms of the franchise because you are paid per passenger mile. It’s more profitable to run a train from Dover or Hastings than it is from Orpington or Sevenoaks. Having seen the way London Overground seems to have done pretty well since taking over some of the lines north of the river I see no reason why they shouldn’t also be running the other stuff and have the services that start at Dartford and Sevenoaks better integrated.

Colleagues of mine who change on to the London Overground at New Cross say it’s very good compared with the earlier, Southeastern, part of their journey. We are where we are and what I want to do now is keep pressing Chris Grayling and whoever else is transport secretary at any point just to not give up on at least a stronger operational linkage between the metro services and TfL.

Where actually I do agree with his recent package, having been very critical in the past, is that there is an issue about trying to align train and track – there was a separation when it was privatised in the first place. One of the biggest problems has been the pretty woeful coordination between the operator – Southestern in our case of my constituency – and Network Rail. Probably about 60% of the failures on the bit of line that affects Bromley South are things like signal and points failures.

Those are Network Rail’s problems, the publicly-owned bits. That’s why I don’t quite buy all the privatisation stuff one way or the other – you can have bad private companies and bad public ones or you can have good ones. Chris Grayling’s objective is laudable, trying to get the two working together, though putting two failing ones together I’m not surely necessarily gives you a good one. I’d like to see a bit more detail. TfL, in my experience, have got that sort of thing sorted out better. So it’s a work in progress as far as I am concerned.

Q: You were famously one of the EU Withdrawal Bill rebels. How difficult was that for you and how have things been since?

A: I didn’t do it lightly. I will have been a member of the party for 50 years next year and I’ve been an active member all that time. I was first elected a councillor in 1974 when I was 21. Last week was only the second time I have voted against my party in the House. So I don’t recant from it at all. As far as I am concerned, accepting the referendum result, albeit as somebody who didn’t want to leave, I think that if taking back control meant anything it meant taking back control for our system of government. So I’m certainly very firm on my right to do it.

Nothing too terrible has happened. I’ve got quite broad shoulders. I think I got all the generic messages – emails with hangman’s nooses on them, that sort of stuff – and some from individuals who’ve been a bit grumpy. But the supportive ones have outweighed the critical ones by three, possibly even four to one. That’s been the case not only across the country but in the constituency as well. What I think has been pretty outrageous has been the specific death threats to Dominic Grieve and there’s a nasty misogynist element to some of it. With the exception of Dominic it was mostly the women MPs who were particularly targeted by this. Some of the other guys didn’t seem to get quite that level of abuse. What does that say about some of the people involved?

Q: How can the Conservatives in London recover their electoral fortunes?

A: I think we need a Ruth Davidson, almost. Back to my point about devolution, if we’re giving more power to London’s institutions, as I think we should, the Conservative Party needs to have a London brand. It’s not going to be as distinctive as a Scottish or a Welsh one and, of course, we’re not going to be separate parties because we’re not separate countries. But I do think we need more flexibility in the way we interpret Conservative policies in devolved areas and I think, in particular, we have to work really hard to make sure that we are a party for the whole of London. At the moment there are too many parts that are almost a no-go areas for Conservatives. We have no councillors at all in too many Inner London boroughs. Now that’s not acceptable. And we can only change that from the ground up.

I think it’s also about tone. Part of the Brexit thing is about tone. We are going to be deciding what sort of country we are as we face Brexit, and that’s why I think it’s very important that we send the message that we still want to be welcoming to people who come from abroad. I’m a socially liberal Conservative and I think most Londoners are. I think Steve Hammond made the same point about recognising metropolitan values. I don’t like it when some people in senior positions in my party sneer at them. Metropolitan values are actually generally civilised and rather good things. A One Nation Conservative Party ought to be able to reconcile those values with those of others in more traditional parts of the country.

Here, we need to be driven clearly by Londoners and for Londoners. It’s got to be more diverse and not just in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality but also in its general social backgrounds and attitudes. I think we’ve made a start by having a London unit. I think we need also a proper London board for the Conservative Party, as it has in Scotland. And we need, early on, a mayoral candidate who can be a figurehead for the party, someone who ideally should not be one of the usual suspects. Someone not like myself – a middle-aged man in a suit.

Q: Do you have one word with which to describe the Zac Goldsmith mayoral campaign?

A: Unfortunate.

Follow Bob Neill on Twitter.

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