Land Registry Sale – National Interest or Quick Buck?

Data on who owns all this could be transferred to the private sector. (Photocredit:  Getty images)

There’s been plenty written about the government’s desire  to sell off the  Land Registry  – including  by my fellow Huffpo blogger Jeremy Raj – but some arresting new research has just been published  by the New Economics Foundation and  pressure group We Own It.

This suggests that a sell off, now, of the Land Registry would see the public short changed “as the value of the scarified surpluses will have exceeded the value money received from the sale.”  Heady stuff, particularly as the raison d’etre of the sale was specifically to raise funds.

That the government  has taken this  stance when  Land Registry’s business is booming,  surpluses increasing,  costs under control, and productivity rising shows  just  what a premium  is being put on achieving  so-far elusive  financial targets associated with  the national debt.  “A strong economy lies at the heart of good government” begins the introduction to the consultative document on the proposed sell-off. In other words, and as Aditya Chakrabortty very recently described, everything must go or we are all doomed. The £1.225bn Land Registry is expected to yield makes a big dent in the Chancellor’s £5bn target for sell-offs announced in the autumn statement last year.

But as this new report sets out, the government seems to get it wrong in the terms of its own argument.  And you can see where the critics are coming from; There are many “ifs and buts”   surrounding the government’s plans.  Lots of optimistic conjecture, especially about future growth and how the government will retain control of key data, rather than hard fact. Recent history is not reassuring, as the Public Accounts Committee’s criticism of the last big public sale – Royal Mail – set out starkly.

And, of course,  once you have sold  off an asset,  banked the  proceeds,  you cannot do  so again – even  when if  it continues to make significant profits and its business – which is absolutely linked to housing market activity –  is  strong for the foreseeable future.

When these financial arguments are lined up beside policy issues, you begin to sense that the government may have a problem here.  Those policy arguments centre around integrity (a similar proposal  in 2014  was scrapped, and this new  consultation was arguably launched  at a time  to guarantee maximum stealth),  risk (potential instability in property transactions,  new and untested  regulatory  arrangements) and transparency (more public data disappearing behind a private wall)

But for me,  even  more worrying  than the contradictions been  the stated aims and the likely  outcomes is  the potential – well, likely – impact on two elements  key  to maintaining good governance  in our country. Sounds melodramatic, but bear with me.

Since around 1066, the state has recognised that it needs to keep a strong grasp on its knowledge of who owns what.  William the Conqueror commissioned a little thing called the Domesday Book to do just that.  Why would any government not feel this knowledge is important?  Why would any government not see the need to be sure – really sure – it had a handle on this.

Because is not knowing who owns what land, and what property is built on that land surely at the heart of good, strong, transparent government in our property-based democracy? That’s surely worth more than a quick buck, however it’s dressed up?

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

5 leagues and 100 clubs – Be Careful What You Wish For 

Will plans to create a 100 club, 5 league structure make Saturday special again? (Photocredit :Getty Images)
I like the idea of a 5 league 100 team structure at the top of England’s football pyramid. So full marks to the bods at the FA for putting the idea forward and starting the debate.  It’s not a panacea for the challenges the game faces, but it does tick some important boxes – player (and spectator) fatigue, a more rational structure, more flexibility in the footballing calendar.

But it is clear that the debate is necessary and not straight-forward. Let’s take two specifics.

First, for all the positives, listed above, playing fewer games in a season is highly problematic for many clubs – well, most clubs actually.  For my own beloved Brentford, currently resting at 29th in the pyramid (i.e. – top half of the current second tier) the loss of income that four fewer home games would lead to is highly significant, as the supporters have already made clear.  – based on 2014/15 ticket income, removing those games makes for a loss to the club of £540,602.

There is of course a way round this – English football is hugely lucrative.  The latest contract for Premier League TV rights is worth   around £5.1bn over three years.  Parachute payments are common place –  so why not extend this  culture of compensation  to off-set the risk to clubs whose cash flow and profit-and-loss accounts  are  much  more vulnerable than  the  premier league giants?  As the much-respected @Besotted said, the sums involved are not, in footballing terms, so great –  £12k off the weekly wage bill in this case.

A second issue is the possible  rededication  of Saturday afternoons as the  time for  football matches to  take place , made possible by  a sparser  schedule of  games.  I recognise the appeal of this return to more straight-forward and less distracted times (although midweek floodlit matches also have strong support). But I fear such hopes are forlorn.

This is because part of the rationale for such huge sums being associated with football is its marketability.  And that  marketability  requires a different approach to scheduling, increasingly with live football  being shown on  TV  every day of the week, with kick-off times  to  maximise the audience (and advertising revenues for everyone but the BBC).  Indeed,  you could argue that football as whole is so leveraged  that maximising financial  returns  is  the only valid criterion –  that seems to be the justification (for example) for Wembley Stadium’s  marketing  approach –  the  money  spent of redeveloping the site  has to be repaid.

And if there is  more space in  the domestic calendar,  is that  just to facilitate  a European Super League  which will do nothing  to deliver a stronger national  team or any of those prospective benefits for the clubs involved.

Crucially, for those hoping for the rededication of Saturdays, I suspect the price of a compensatory payment by broadcasters will be even more flexibility in scheduling.

Always assuming the FA’s motives were good, it’s a question of the best of ideas being subject to the law of unintended consequences!



Has The Sun Declared War on IPSO?


It sounds extra-ordinary, but it looks like the Sun has declared war on IPSO – the self –regulatory body for the press.  And in doing so has possibly cast doubt on the future of self-regulation itself.

Firstly, though, let’s note a significant moment. For the first time IPSO have exercised their new powers to deal with misleading headlines.  The Sun claimed, in a front page splash, that Her Majesty was in favour of a Brexit from the EU.  Buckingham Palace complained.  The newspaper refused to apologise so IPSO’s Complaints Committee ruled. The ‘paper had to print their adjudication in full and publicise that on their front page.

Being able to act on misleading headlines is long overdue. The willingness of IPSO to do so is positive. And the organisation’s work on building high standards into the everyday culture of newspapers is welcome. But it is only two cheers because IPSO also has the power to direct how its decisions are presented.  A banner at the bottom of the front page is  a clear improvement on the miniscule content  the last time  The Sun  got “done”  for a  front page  error.  But it still has nothing like the impact of the original story.  My view is clear:  If something was so important to warrant a front page splash and it turns out to be wrong – then the correction should have just as much prominence.

In fairness to IPSO, the decision was leading on most broadcast media this morning ahead of the eclipse caused by the Queen’s Speech (and perhaps the timing of the announcement could have been better for that reason). But take it from me, nothing and I mean nothing, acts as a reality- check for newspaper editors than having their front page taken away from them. That is why for the most serious breaches of the Editor’s Code, it is an absolutely appropriate sanction.

But the Sun’s response may come to be regarded as near-suicidal. I think it is possibly unprecedented – certainly in the post-Leveson era – for an editorial attacking the sanction to be published in the same edition! “We respect IPSO…but they got it wrong” is a reasonable paraphrasing.  This reassertion of faith in a headline that has been found to be unsupported by the story that follows it is surely the journalistic equivalent of sticking two fingers up. (Incidentally, in the same editorial they also claim to know what the Queen thinks)

“We don’t care what you say..ain’t no regulator gonna shut us up” seems to be the line.  But decry IPSO in this particular way and you invite attacks on the self-regulatory system.  For those that value a free presses, that is a very dangerous road to go down.

Full disclosure: I was a member of The Press Complaints Commission 2008-2014

Good News Politics – But Beware the No Votes


Newly-elected London Mayor Leaves Home For First Day At City Hall
LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 09: London Mayor Sadiq Khan leaves his home in Tooting on May 9, 2016 in London, England. Mr Khan begins his first day at his City Hall office after winning the race to become London’s Mayor with 56.8% of the vote. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Now that the dust is beginning to settle over last week’s elections, we can reflect on many significant political achievements. The campaign for London Mayor and the accompanying battle for seats on the London Assembly demonstrated that London is Labour – with the outgoing Conservative Boris Johnson already seeming almost an aberration.  No less significant than the election of Sadiq Khan, was the success of Marvin Rees, giving Bristol a black mayor to help right the historic wrongs of that city’s association with slavery. The SNP’s much-heralded success actually saw them loose a share of the vote and their majority in Holyrood. Labour pipped the Conservatives into second place on votes received, but their own share continued to fall – down another 2% on their 2015 performance.

And the  big, and surprise winners,  were Police and Crime Commissioners – elected in every  instance  on a  higher – in some case (eg Dyfed Powys) much higher turnout  than  in previous  years.

Despite the excitement, rows and exhaustive/exhausting analysis, the big winner last Thursday was none of the above candidates or parties. In fact it was none of  the above on any  ballot in any election  that  took place –  it was the people  who  didn’t vote and the people  who couldn’t vote.

Hang on, you will say – turnout was up?  This is a good news scenario for voter engagement?

And yes, it is true –  the appetite to vote  was  greater  not just  for  PCCs (who saw increases in  turnouts of up  to  32%  and overall participation   of up  to  49%).  In Scotland, turnout rose by 5 points to 55.6%. Wales was up more than 3 points to 45.3%, and in London by more than 7 points to 45.3% for the Mayor and 45.6% (up nearly 5 points) for the Assembly.

But even  though  these increases are  very welcome,  you will notice that at  very  best 9 out of every  20 voters  stayed at home. Even for the most powerful directly elected politician in the country, 11 out of 20 were disengaged.

And that is using the last set of relevant elections as a bench-mark.  If you want to emphasise the scale of the problem, just look to last year’s General Election. There are all  sorts of reasons why votes in General Elections  are higher than  in local ones – but turnout rates were  still  only 71.1% in Scotland, 65.6%  in Wales and  65.4% in London.

But as well as people who don’t vote, there are those who can’t vote – because they are not on the Electoral Register.  Here the  government’s  drive to implement  Individual Electoral  Registration (IER) –  against the  advice of the Electoral Commission and drawing criticism  from the Electoral Reform Society –  has coincided with an estimated 1.4m names  coming off the  Electoral Register using  2014 as a benchmark1.    Those unregistered tend to be groups who are anyway underrepresented in the political process.

All of the above is not healthy. But there seems little appetite for decisive action to address widespread and embedded disengagement with the political process.  Moves to expand the franchise   to 16 and 17 years olds in forthcoming EU referendum (following huge participation by this group in the Scottish referendum) were blocked by government.  There is an antipathy to electronic voting. You could make voting mandatory and fine people who refuse – but that’s too much stick and no carrot for my liking.  Or you could change the electoral system. Critics say that would not necessarily increase engagement, but it would unarguably make politics more relevant.

A change in our politics   is already taking place. Devolution of power means devolution of politics too. We have top up lists and second preference voting.  Andy Burnham talks of swapping Westminster for Manchester.  But  to  truly  overcome what is still a significant  worrying  democratic deficit,  we must  go  further. I am delighted to see Sadiq and Marvin in their city halls and admire their remarkable achievements. I hope this will facilitate and inspire more participation in our politics – for the good of us all.

1 Labour Research Department, “Missing Millions”  May 2016

This post also appears in “The Huffington Post

Leicester City -Wonderful, But No Surprise

Jamie Vardy silences critics  during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Leicester City at the Stadium of Light on April 10, 2016. Credit: Getty Images


There is something very wonderful about Leicester City’s Premiership win. But when the BBC’s Dan Roan (and many others) said that this is something that should not have happened, the couldn’t be more wrong.

Let’s start with the bookies. Whoever gave odds of 5000-1 against the Foxes coming out on top shouldn’t be in the business.  It’s a 20 team league with a load of random factors you can’t control or predict.

But even if the odds were more modest, is it still such a bolt from the blue? Unexpected? Yes.  Unlikely? Yes too.  But what Leicester’s win does is show how narrow the gap between success and failure is.

Jamie Vardy  or  Riyad Mahrez are fantastic footballers –  but  they  have counterparts  who  have the same potential  in the lower reaches of  football, but  just  miss out,  or get injured,  or don’t  progress for  some another reason.

Claudio Ranieri is not an inexperienced manager – but until anyone wins something significant, they can be described as the “nearly man” (or woman).

Leicester may not  have assembled a team  costing hundreds  of millions –  but that does not mean they are poor,  or unambitious, without  a  rich and influential  benefactor, or  poorly  run.

So all the ingredients were at Leicester for success. But  then you  have the  added ingredients  of  confidence  from  good management,  momentum from  good results and crucially  Fate – intervening in referring decisions that  could have gone the  wrong way (albeit balanced by those  that  did –  like Vardy’s  arguably unfair dismissal in a pivotal match against West Ham), the loss of form of key rivals,  and players avoiding injuries.

And let’s not forget that  City’s success   has been built  on  some  fairly  old-fashioned, traditional  values –  speed in  attack,  a robust  defence, good organisation on the pitch, high levels of fitness.

Former Leicester boss Martin O’Neill ruminated that this is the biggest  story in football since the  remarkable feats of Nottingham Forrest nearly 40 years ago (documented in the superb book  by Daniel Taylor) Maybe he is right – but Leicester’s feat is magnified by the  global interest in  the top flight of English  football.  This is a big, big commercial deal which gives the story unprecedented resonance.

It is with indecent haste that thoughts turn  to next season – European competition,  more matches, the pressure  of success, can they  keep it up?  We should resist the speculation and enjoy the a fairy-tale-come-true. Long-term supporters of the club are entitled to the hyperbole.

The dividends of Leicester’s success are dispread across a wide area – from community cohesion in an ethnically diverse city, to tourism, to more kids playing the game. But for whatever reason, and irrespective of consequences, we’ve all got a big smile on this sunny morning.  A good news story, and a sense of hope has been restored.  Well done Leicester City.