4 October 2019
Another conference, another week of howling wind and rain, endless speeches, receptions and events. The BPA were in Manchester this week for the Conservative Party Conference.
The headline policy announcement was by the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, who said that they would be setting a new target for the National Living Wage to reach two-thirds of median earnings over the next five years and extending that wage to all workers aged 21 and older. Currently, workers over 25 must be paid the national living wage – this will come down to 23 next April 2021. This means that the Government expect the national living wage to be £10.50 by 2024 and apply to all workers over 21 years of age.
The Chancellor also announced a new ‘red tape challenge’ to ensure business regulation is fit for purpose and identify EU regulations that could be disposed of after Brexit. Mr Javid also announced an ‘infrastructure revolution’, including a £25bn strategic and local road investment in England and £5bn for rural broadband.
Also in England, the Government will publish a White Paper on further devolution to give more local areas more local powers to drive investments in the infrastructure and services.
The Chancellor reconfirmed the Government’s approach of taking a dynamic market-driven approach to cutting carbon emissions and meeting the UK 2050 ‘Net Zero’ target. This follows the Prime Minister’s recent commitment to doubling UK funding for global environmental and climate change programmes.
In contrast to the Chancellor’s speech, the Prime Minister’s conference address was less about policy and more about enthusing Conservative Party members in the hall in anticipation of a forthcoming election. Indeed the event felt more upbeat than last year although there talking to delegates there remains some divisions over Brexit and particularly over how many of the new spending announcements should be funded.
We heard again this week that the Conservatives are planning to ban live animal exports for fattening or for slaughter with Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers saying Brexit was the opportunity to outlaw it once the UK leaves the Single Market.
The Conference fringe was busy this year, with a large number of transport, infrastructure, and environmental themes. At one-to-one session with the International Trade Secretary Liz Truss talked up the opportunities for Free Ports. She also revealed that so far the UK had negotiated role-over agreements covering 70% of the EU’s trade deals, meaning they would be in place on day one, in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Canada and Japan are some of the main exceptions.
There was a lively discussion on biomass at the Conservative Environment Network where it was confirmed that the Government would not re-categorise biomass as a non-renewable fuel, even if the EU does make a change in the future.
In other fringes Ministers celebrated the success of offshore wind (with even the Prime Minister dismissing ‘naysayers’ which he acknowledged at one time included himself).
At the Port of Dover’s fringe event with the Freight Transport Association, delegates were told that Dover could lose £1bn worth of trade a week if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. Transport Minister George Freeman confirmed ‘Yellowhammer’ assumptions that traffic in the short straits could drop by 40-60% in the first three months of a no-deal Brexit.
The Port of London were active in the fringe as well at an event on air quality with liberal conservative group ‘Bright Blue’ with Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers. Ms Villiers said air pollution is “undoubtedly the biggest threat to public health”. She also said that lowering emissions must not impact the cost of living.
ABP hosted a panel event with Ministers on the future of trade as well as their regular ‘sea shanty’ drinks reception, which was enthusiastically received by delegates.
We also attended an event by Fishing For Leave on the future of fisheries with former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Fishing For Leave have taken a very hard line on Brexit and are advocating for a no-deal Brexit.
Maritime UK’s reception celebrating the sector was a big success, with Ministers Nus Ghani, Nadhim Zahawi being joined by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in a packed room. All three Ministers spoke warmly of the sector.
Outside of the maritime and transport events we attended a number of discussions on Transport for the North and sub-national transport bodies, the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland receptions and caught up with a number of Ministers and advisers.
There were also a number of environmental events this year and strong theme from NGOs was concern about the ‘tearing up’ of environmental and planning rules but Party representatives were quick to suggest this would not be the case.
Overall there was more of a ‘buzz’ around Conservative conference than there was in Brighton last week (certainly compared to previous years) and there was a lot more for us to take in both in the hall and on the fringe as the Prime Minister seeks to move on from Brexit.
Next we will be attending the Scottish National Party conference in Aberdeen where we look forward to some nicer conference weather…