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Problems of deregulation

I've been dealing with two problems recently where local residents have been on the receiving end of sharp business practice with distressing consequences.

The first involves constituents who purchased leasehold properties from Miller Homes on their new development in Hunslet. The homeowners thought they would be able to buy the freehold for a reasonable sum in a couple of years. What they have found out, however, is that Miller Homes sold on their freeholds to another company which is now asking for payments they cannot afford. This is just one example of a national scandal in which there has been totally unscrupulous practice by companies who bought freeholds from developers and saw it as a licence to print money. The Government has now promised to legislate to stop this practice and we had a debate in Parliament in which I raised the Miller Homes case. The company has told me that they no longer sell homes leasehold, but what about those who have already been caught out? One national housebuilder has set up a compensation scheme, but I think they all should. It's only fair and otherwise some people could find themselves trapped in a home that they cannot sell.

The second is an extraordinary story about a block of flats on the riverside. It used to be a pleasant place to live until new owners bought it, gave notice to quit to all the tenants - bar one who had a long lease - and then started to rent out the flats as if they were hotel rooms to stag do's and hen parties. They didn't apply for planning permission because they wouldn't have got it. The residents have suffered noise nuisance into the early hours, music, yelling in the street, drunkenness and rubbish. They simply cannot believe how this can have happened in the quiet street in which they were living. Leeds City Council has now issued an enforcement notice to bring this nuisance to end, but the owners can appeal and this could drag it out further.

I am supporting both groups in their campaigns, but these two cases really bring home what can happen when firms engage in unethical behaviour. And the next time anyone tells you that we live in an over-regulated society, remind them of these two stories. Regulation is there for a reason - to protect us from this kind of thing.

An update on the Holbeck managed prostitution area. I continue to receive complaints from residents and local businesses. "It's out of control" as one businessman put it to me recently. I have always said that the scheme is only going to be credible with the public if everyone sticks to the rules. This is clearly not happening and people are getting fed up. So the time has come to have a rethink. We know there are no easy alternatives, but we should be thinking about what else can be done and I will be urging the Council and the Police now to do so.

Finally, a thank you. With all-out council elections coming up in May, three of our current south Leeds sitting councillors - Adam Ogilvie, David Congreve and Patrick Davey - will not be seeking re-election. It has been a great privilege for me to serve alongside them for many years, not least because I have seen first-hand just how hard they have worked on behalf of the communities they represent. A lot of what they have achieved, working with others, can be seen around us and will stand as a testament to their efforts. So thank you Adam, David and Patrick for everything you have done. We really appreciate it and we wish you well for the future.

First published in the February 2018 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - February 2018

Problems of deregulation I've been dealing with two problems recently where local residents have been on the receiving end of sharp business practice with distressing consequences.

Time to re-nationalise the railways

First published in the January 2018 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here  

Seeing the New Year in has its own special traditions, but one that is less than popular is the annual rise in rail fares.

This year they are going up by around 3.4% – the largest increase for five years. Comparing the rise in fares on over 80 routes between when the current Government came to power and this January, the average commuter will now be paying £2,888 for their annual season ticket – that’s £694 more than in 2010. At a time when real wages for many people are stagnant, this will hit family budgets hard.

But it’s not the only thing happening on our railways that is raising hackles. Take the extraordinary announcement back in November by Chris Grayling the Transport Secretary about the future of the East Coast mainline.

The franchise has had a somewhat chequered history. From the mid 1990s the line was run by GNER until financial difficulties, including in its parent company, meant that it could not pay the premium it had promised to the Government. National Express then took over, only to hand back the keys two years later because of losses. It had tried to renegotiate the contract but the Transport Secretary at the time refused, saying “I’m simply not prepared to bail out companies that are unable to meet their commitments.”

Having been faced with two private franchise failures, the then Labour Government decided to take the line into public ownership and run it directly as East Coast Trains. It was a great success which paid back over £1 billion to the Government over the course of five and a half years.

Now you might have thought the incoming Tory Government would have been happy to carry on with this arrangement – not least because it was making money at a time when the public finances were under pressure – but no. Ideological purity was apparently more important than common sense, so ministers announced that the franchise would be put out to tender once again. Anyone could bid to run the service – including state-owned railway companies from the rest of Europe – with just one exception. The British state-owned company, East Coast Trains, which had actually been running the line for the past five years, was told that it could not put in a bid. Extraordinary!

And so Virgin East Coast won the right to run the service, only for it too to run into difficulties. And so in November, ministers quietly announced that Virgin East Coast will be allowed to walk away from the deal three years early. It had been due to operate the line until 2023, paying sums to the Government for the privilege, but now they will be let off and the franchise will be replaced by a public-private partnership in 2020. Chris Grayling has done what his predecessor Andrew Adonis refused to do – in effect bail out a failing private sector bid.

There’s a bigger issue here. What the history of the east coast line shows is that the private franchising model is broken. Fares are too high and complicated, and the system should be fully integrated so we don’t have to worry about using an East Coast ticket on Hull Trains.

I think it’s time that all the franchises were brought back into public ownership to join the tracks which are already in public hands. We could call it British Railways. Now where have I heard that before?

You can watch a video I posted about this issue on my Facebook page here

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - January 2018

Time to re-nationalise the railways First published in the January 2018 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here   Seeing the New Year in has its own special...

First published in the December 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here

It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find myself recently discussing with a senior clergyman and some parliamentary colleagues the way politics is debated and MPs are sometimes treated. What got the discussion started was Brexit and the way it has polarised opinion within political parties and across the country. Those who voted leave can't understand why it's taking so long, and anyone who tries to point out that it is slightly complicated can be attacked for being a mutineer, a traitor or worse. And those who voted remain are really angry at all those who say that Brexit will be wonderful when they think it will be an utter disaster.

It's understandable that with strong feelings on both sides debate can be forthright, but there is a huge difference between that and the sort of social media abuse now regularly directed at people in public life about all sorts of issues.

I have looked back at some of the comments directed at me in the past couple of years and it is astonishing how personal and offensive some people can be. But when you compare my experience with what many women MPs have gone through - vicious, violent and sexualised abuse - it seems almost mild by comparison.

So why do some people think this in an acceptable way to behave?

I suspect that most of those who do this online feel - wrongly - that they can 'hide' behind their Twitter handle. I also reckon that almost all of them would never dream of saying in person what they say online. It's the modern day equivalent of shouting something rude through the letter box and running away.

I tested out my theory a few years ago when I got a particularly horrible letter from a man I didn't know.  For some reason he had put his telephone number on it so I rang him up. I told him who I was and referred to his letter. I could tell by his voice that he had never expected in a million years that this might happen. I didn't mention the abuse but addressed the substance of his complaint. He was as good as gold and even thanked me for calling him.

My father had another way of dealing with this problem. When he got an exceptionally offensive letter he would write back to the address and say "Dear Mr Smith,  I feel obliged to point out that someone has clearly stolen your headed letter paper and is sending grossly abusive letters pretending to be you." He said it usually worked to bring it to an end!

Don't get me wrong. This is not a plea for politicians, local or national, to be treated with kid gloves or to be afforded respect automatically. Not at all. Fair criticism is part of the job and it helps us to do it better. But that is not the same as vile abuse of those who serve the public.

When I was growing up my Mum used to read to us 'The Water Babies' by the Rev Charles Kingsley. It had a mysterious quality about it - something to do with the illustrations and it being set under water. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. She was a rather stern person but she was trying to teach the characters an important lesson about how to behave in life.  Treat others as you would wish to be treated.  

So in that spirit, can I take this opportunity to wish you all and everyone at South Leeds Life a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - December 2017

First published in the December 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find...

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