Across the opinion pages: the Master, technical schools, open spaces and prisoners

Nik Darlington 2.15pm

The Times (£) has a brilliant range of comment pieces published today, worth venturing behind the paywall to read. Opinion genuinely is one of the newspaper’s USPs, along with its beautiful and accessible multi-platform digital interface.

Tuesdays typically mean Rachel Sylvester’s unmissable column, and today she plays on a favourite theme, ‘the Master’. Often enough she has commented how Conservative party modernisers afford Tony Blair deified status, his autobiography a fixture of Tory bedside tables and playbook for the contemporary political scene. This week, however, it’s all about how everyone’s wrongly reading the Blairite tea leaves, including Ed Miliband.

The truth is that Mr Blair was authentically of the centre in a way that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband is. He was an entryist who had taken control of his party, whereas the current Tory and Labour leaders are both, in background and beliefs, far more of their tribes. The success of new Labour was based on turning this reality into a political strategy that was pursued with ruthless efficiency and consistency. Everything that Mr Blair did and said - to begin with at least - was dedicated to demonstrating that he was more at home on the middle ground than in the Labour comfort zone…

Mr Blair took office promising new Labour would be the “servants of the people”. He lost power when the perception took hold that he wanted to be a Master of the Universe and his MPs turned on him. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband have yet shown whether they are the servants of the people or their parties.

Rough reading for both leaders, who feel the weight of the former prime minister on their shoulders in more ways than one. And a reminder, yesterday, of Mr Blair’s uncommon talents.

Meanwhile, Lord Baker, an honorary life member of the TRG, writes about “a new wave of university technical colleges”. The Government is nearly doubling the number of these colleges, which supported by universities provide technical training to pupils between 14 and 19-years-old. Britain’s school leavers need more technical nous to compete in a challenging global marketplace.

We had a few technical schools at the end of the war but these were killed off by English snobbery. Everyone wanted to go the grammar school on the hill, not the one in the town with dirty jobs and oily rags. Germany didn’t make the same mistake: they adopted and still have the 1944 English education system and it is one of the reasons why Angela Merkel is ruling the roost. These colleges are our chance to rectify that mistake.

Under the Labour government Lord Baker, a former Education Secretary himself, convinced Andrew Adonis to trial two of these UTCs. Their expansion was supported by the Conservative party at the last general election, a pledge that has been wholeheartedly fulfilled by the coalition government.

The outgoing Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, eulogises on the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death. With a theme that I also used in an article earlier this year for the Richmond Magazine, Dame Fiona writes that the protection of open green spaces is a battle still being waged, and one still very much worth waging.

When [Octavia Hill] died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members. We now have four million. While she would no doubt be impressed, she would not be surprised, and she would certainly not be complacent. She believed, as we do, that beauty, nature and heritage are fundamental to the human condition. She spoke of everlasting delight. If she were here now, she would describe the past hundred years of the Trust and what we stand for as one of enduring relevance; a cause which we must never cease to pursue.

Finally, the experienced barrister and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, writes that Britain should give in to the European Court’s ruling to award the vote to prisoners.

Far from being harmless, giving prisoners the unqualified right to vote has positive values. How better to promote peaceful coexistence in society than to remove any sense in prisoners of second-class citizenship. It is precisely what the Government is preaching in its recent legislation on sentencing reform - namely, greater efforts to make the rehabilitation of prisoners more vigorous in penal institutions.

The right of every citizen to vote is acknowledged to be a constitutional right. It is in truth not a human right but it certainly is a civil liberty guaranteed by Article 3 of Protocol No 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom, which the UK ratified as long ago as 1952.

Egremont has long been favourable to the Government’s principled and correct stance on penal reform, and last year we published an excellent article by the Howard League’s Sophie Willett. The ‘bang them up and lock away the key’ school of justice is outmoded and discredited; Britain’s prisons are at bursting point. That much is true.

However, the right to vote is not God-given, as Sir Louis agrees. Nor should it be beholden on any sovereign government to afford certain constitutional rights to individuals who transgress this country’s laws and bring harm to fellow citizens.

Reform the nature of a criminal’s penance, certainly; but that penance must still be served.

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Progressive Conservatives should support a Land Value Tax

David Cowan 9.51am

In this year’s Macmillan Lecture, the Conservative MP Nick Boles proposed a series of ideas to improve Britain’s economic competitiveness. By far the most fascinating idea was a land value tax.

In the past it has usually been those on the socialistic Left and the libertarian Right who have advocated a land value tax (LVT). But Mr Boles is a prominent Conservative moderniser, founder of the Policy Exchange think tank, and known to be close to the party leadership.

The introduction of a LVT ought to be viewed as the most legitimate way to raise new revenue.

For too long, landowners and speculators have been able to reap sizeable economic outputs from rising land values, though contributing little economic input. One example being how the construction of the Jubilee line sent surrounding land values shooting up to £10 billion, to the benefit of landowners, while taxpayers still had to foot the bill.

The idea strikes to the heart of David Cameron’s vision of responsible capitalism:

“We need to reconnect the principles of risk, hard work, and success with reward”.

Another benefit of LVT is it would create a more stable and productive land market. There would be no benefit in owning land without utilising it since landowners would have to raise enough income to pay the LVT bill. The reduction in speculative activity would help drive down prices and rent, so ensuring that growth in the land market is based on sustainable and real returns instead of artificial and speculative booms.

LVT would also be a new ‘eco-tax’ that discourages construction on expensive ‘greenfield’ areas in favour of cheaper ‘brownfield sites’, so limiting urban sprawl. This brings the consequent benefits of reduced commuting distances and less costly road works, which contribute to CO2 emissions and atmospheric pollution.

However, Mr Boles’ LVT proposal should go a step further. Properties of all shapes and sizes are already overtaxed by the likes of council tax, business rates, stamp duty land tax, planning charges, and landfill tax. If these taxes were to remain then LVT would be burdening people with further unwelcome costs.

Instead, LVT should replace those property taxes - either entirely or at the very least mostly.

It would still raise sufficient revenue if pitched at the correct rate and included main homes, with exemptions for farmland, national parks, charities and pensioners’ main homes. The fact that LVT would also apply to land which at the moment is not taxed at all goes to show how it would raise more revenue than the current property taxes that place a heavy burden on ordinary homeowners.

This would be simple to implement since land cannot be hidden in an offshore tax haven and calculating the tax bill would be made easier by the fact that land values are already measured by the market, therefore compliance costs could be reduced. The same bureaucratic processes for collecting business rates could readily be translated to the collection of LVT.

The LVT would not harm enterprise. It would boost productivity, discourage urban sprawl, could replace the plethora of punitive property taxes, and would be relatively simple to administer and collect.

The extra revenue raised would be enough to fund a radical package of tax cuts to “put fuel into the tank of the British economy”, as George Osborne promised last year, and would reconnect the link between effort and reward by making sure everyone pays their fair share. This is very much a policy that ought to be part of any modern, progressive Conservative agenda.

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