Lobbying work review: Parliamentarians, staff, APPGs, Select Committees. Their reflections on our campaign on behalf of small businesses (with a high street presence) and what the future holds for the British high street
Over the past six months of my employment with Buy Rent Commercial I have been involved in lobbying Members of Parliament and those in other ancillary positions; raising awareness of the issues that small businesses that are looking to attain leases on premises are facing. It was decided that amongst several policy initiatives that we had developed, we would predominately focus on the two following briefs; ‘Tenancy Deposit Schemes’ and ‘Capitalisation Rate Review’. I faced a variety of reactions ranging from enthusiasm, indifference, scepticism, concern and even antipathy.
Meeting with Chris Green MP (Conservative) (Bolton West) – 16.10.18
The first meeting with a Parliamentarian was not a success. He met with us as his aide (William Haslam) is a friend of mine. The member was clearly distracted, as is so often the case and did not engage with the two issues that we brought to his attention. He wanted the issues that we raised to be directly linked to his constituency (which is a marginal seat) and was angry when a connection could not be made. His bigotry and aggression towards us was highly surprising but it ensured that we were very prepared for future meetings. It also made us come to the realisation that there was no point trying hard to solicit meetings with Members and others who had no interest in our area of interest namely; high streets, SMEs/small businesses and helping smaller businesses compete for space on the high street.
Meeting with Mark Menzies MP (Conservative) (Fylde) – 16.10.18 *Lobbyist only
Mark met with myself in an informal meeting in his office, where we discussed a number of things including the lobbying work that I was undertaking on behalf of BRC. I brought up the two policy initiatives that we had decided upon and Mark was broadly sympathetic to the concepts. Unfortunately, he declined to get heavily involved in the issues that the company was raising awareness of, though offered to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to express his concern over capitalisation rates – ultimately this never happened. The issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in his constituency of Fylde ultimately proved to be too pressing for him to become involved in other ventures. He remains a friendly face however and would always be open to helping out (especially as his aide is a friend).
Meeting with Kelvin Hopkins MP (Independent, suspended by Labour) (Luton North) – 23.10.18
The meeting with Kelvin was positive – if not that productive. The avuncular and elderly MP chatted away without being particularly concerned with the brief that we had proffered. He was sympathetic to our ideas, whilst also being non-committal and did not seem like he would be open to getting heavily involved in our work. Quite simply a briefing meeting that informed a member of the current situation without expectation that they would get involved further.
Meeting with Ian Lucas MP (Labour) (Wrexham) – 23.10.18
The meeting with Ian Lucas resulted in the most affirmative response to date as he actively opined that he was interested in our policy initiatives and the work that the company does. He discussed the issues that he had in his constituency of Wrexham regarding empty shops and engaged with us in an open, fluid discussion. He stated that he would be open to raising the policy issues that we raised with his colleagues in the shadow cabinet and in shadow ministerial roles. He was the first member to show serious interest in the work that we were undertaking and hopefully we influenced his future thinking on the subject.
Meeting with Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP (Conservative) (Sutton Coldfield) – 29.10.18
Andrew Mitchell was by far the most prominent member that we met with; a former chief whip and member of the cabinet, Mitchell was well known during the early years of the coalition Government. He met with us out of courtesy rather than curiosity but, after a candid discussion in which we had to be quite forceful to get our views across, he seemed to accept that the concepts/issues we had brought to his attention were indeed worth exploring further. Whether or not he will raise awareness of the issue further is unknown, though it’s positive that we had a meeting with him and have briefed him on the subject.
Meeting with Laurence Robertson MP (Conservative) (Tewkesbury) – 30.10.18
The third Conservative MP we met with, Laurence Robertson is well known for his hard-right-wing views. His interest was maybe precipitated by his position as a member of the APPG on Pubs (which are closing at record rates and have heavy business rate liabilities). He and his wife Annie were extremely accommodating and our meeting with him was pleasant and productive. He offered to ask a parliamentary (written) question on the subjects we raised and, true to his word he tabled a written question on the subject of tenancy deposit schemes after we emailed him with suggested questions, following the meeting. He potentially could be amenable to further interactions on the subjects, though is more likely to be willing to table the occasional written question rather than get heavily involved.
Meeting with Bambos Charalambous MP (Labour) (Enfield Southgate) – 31.10.18
The first member of the 2017 intake that we met with was the new member for Enfield Southgate, a former solicitor. He had recently been made PPS (Parliamentary Private Secretary) to the shadow Business Secretary and was interested to hear about new ideas and initiatives. His response was very affirmative and he pledged to raise the issues that we mentioned with shadow-ministerial colleagues – especially those involved with the shadow-business brief. As the first member we met with that represented a London constituency, it was easier to discuss more London-centric high street/independent business issues and he certainly seemed to take the issues that we raised with him on board.
Meeting with Christina Rees MP (Labour Co-op) (Neath) (Shadow SoS for Wales) – 19.11.18
Our first meeting with a member of the Shadow Cabinet resulted in a highly productive conversation and an extremely enthusiastic response from the member. Christina was an extremely kind and open person to talk to and also provided a unique perspective for several reasons; (i) She was the first (and only) MP we spoke to who was a Labour Cooperative member (a political union between the Labour Party and the Cooperative Party). (ii) She was the first MP we spoke to with a non-English seat. (iii) As a member of the shadow cabinet she had significantly more influence than a regular Labour MP. Christina’s reactions to what we talked about were very positive and she suggested several people to talk to including; Rebecca Long-Bailey and John Healey (from the shadow cabinet) – plus John McDonnell potentially (the Shadow Chancellor) as well as two individuals high up in the Corporative Party; Derek Walker and Joe Fortune, and finally Labour’s shadow Minister for Small Business, Bill Esterson. Unfortunately, despite a few follow-ups requesting that Christina makes the introduction, news of these further meetings remains at an impasse. This was a regular feature during the lobbying experience and was mainly due to the political climate at the time, detailed exposition on this subject will be provided.
Meeting with Faisal Rashid MP (Labour) (Warrington South) – 04.12.18 *Lobbyist only
Faisal Rashid, another new MP, elected in 2017 had previously worked with independent businesses during his time in the banking sector and was interested in meeting with me due to his professional background. He was the only MP that we met with who was aware of ‘capitalisation rates’ and was already knowledgeable about the property industry and wanted to engage on quite a detailed level about the work that BuyRentCommercial.com performs. He did mention his reservations about capitalisation rates, saying that they were necessary for financial service companies and banks to be able to value property but listened graciously to the views I presented. Ultimately, it seemed unlikely that he would want to engage with BRC further and did not seem overly enthusiastic about our work but he did make, the now reoccurring pledge, to raise what we had briefed him on with ministerial colleagues.
Meeting with Stephen Morgan MP (Labour) (Portsmouth South) – 05.12.18 *Lobbyist only
The youngest Member of Parliament we met with was the 37-year-old Stephen Morgan who had also won his seat in the 2017 election. A friendly, energetic and dynamic young MP who had not yet had time to become cynical, Stephen was happy to talk at length about the problems in his own constituency and the small business forum that he is involved with in Portsmouth. He stated that issues surrounding small businesses and their role on the high street was a concern but did not expand on the specifics. Like other Labour members, he pledged to facilitate an introduction to Bill Esterson MP and other shadow-ministerial colleagues though, despite my follow-up, this introduction was not made. He also said that he would be interested in asking a written – or oral – question upon the subject of the high street and independent businesses, these were sent through to him though it is unclear whether he took them any further.
Meeting with Dr Alan Whitehead MP (Labour) (Southampton Test) – 05.12.18 *Lobbyist only
On the same day as my meeting with Stephen Morgan, I met with Dr Alan Whitehead – convenient because of the similarities between their two constituencies (both located on the South Coast, both cities comprising of a population of roughly 200,000–250,000, both port cities). As well as discussing the two lead policy initiatives with Dr Whitehead, I was also able to able to tell him (as well as Stephen Morgan) about BuyRentCommercial.com’s submission to the Select Committee on Seaside Towns and Coastal Communities which was very well received. Following the meeting and my briefing, Dr Whitehead and his aide expressed their surprise at how useful the meeting had been and again, the member promised to raise the initiatives I brought up with the Labour front bench and, potentially, ask a written question. It’s unclear as to whether Dr Whitehead pursued those avenues further.
Meeting with Barry Sheerman MP (Labour) (Huddersfield) – 19.12.18 *Lobbyist only
One of the most productive meetings that took place was with Barry Sheerman, a highly active Labour backbencher who is heavily involved with the various debates and proceedings that take place within the House of Commons. He was very enthusiastic about the two policy initiatives, and he and I seemed to get on very well on a personal level too. He is clearly an MP who can really get stuck into certain causes that he believes in – and he was and, presumably, still is open to getting involved with campaigns concerning the high street.
Meeting with Nia Griffith MP (Labour) (Llanelli) – 16.01.19 *Lobbyist only
The final MP meeting was with Nia Griffith, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence. A highly cerebral woman, and a mid-ranking member of the Shadow Cabinet, she was quite possibly the most senior MP that I met with during my time with BRC. She responded extremely affirmatively to the concept of a tenancy deposit scheme and believed that it is a policy initiative that could be implemented fairly easily. She was not as enthusiastic about my revelation regarding capitalisation rates, as she saw that as being more problematic and was unsure about what the possible solution to that situation could be. She recommended contacting the Labour-run Welsh Government as they would be sympathetic to the ideas and Wales would provide an interesting trial for a policy that could ultimately be implemented throughout the UK. This was the first time that this concept was raised, and it certainly bares further consideration.
Parliamentary Researchers/Political Aides/Parliamentary Candidates/Others
In addition to meeting with MPs, aides presented an opportunity to present our ideas with fewer time pressures, in a more relaxed atmosphere. The researchers I met with were predominately Conservative (unlike the MPs who were predominately Labour) and many of the researchers know me on a personal level. They included, but were not limited to, Charles Baker (Sarah Newton MP), Richard Grocott (Mark Menzies MP), William Archdeacon (Adam Afriyie) William Haslam (Chris Green) and Amanda Cowan (George Eustice). Many were extremely affirmative about Buy Rent Commercial’s various policies (I did not limit myself to just talking about Capitalisation Rates and Tenancy Deposit Schemes with them). They, and others, represent the new generation of political movers and shakers in the UK and therefore it is always a good idea reach out to them and pick their brains about ideas and policies in the conceptual stage. Their response was affirmative to a lot of the ideas that Buy Rent Commercial has put forward and many have reported that they will brief their MPs on the subjects that were raised. At the 2018 Conservative Party Conference I was also able to engage with people that worked directly for the Conservative Party, other Parliamentary Researchers, lobbyists/public affairs specialists and think tank representatives.
Maximillian von Thun (Economic Advisor to the Liberal Democrats) – 19.11.18
The only meeting I had with an individual directly working for, and paid by, a political party was with Max von Thun, a young, intelligent and idealistic member of the Liberal Democrats. I was able to talk, one-on-one, at length about our policy concepts which were very well received. I first had contact with Max as he responded on behalf of the Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable MP (leader of the Liberal Democrats) who had been unable to find time for a meeting due to his vast array of commitments. As he is Sir Vince’s economic advisor it seems reasonable to assume that he will inform him of exciting fiscal-related initiatives and so it may be the case that he has informed Cable as well as other senior party officials of BRC’s ideas and concerns. We ‘gelled’ on a personal and intellectual level and the meeting was ultimately a success.
Rosemary Buckland (Civil Servant at BEIS, part of the ‘Future Sectors’ team) – 26.11.18
After I contacted Kelly Tolhurst MP, junior minister at BEIS (The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), she replied saying that, although she was too busy to meet, she was happy to facilitate an introduction to a member of the BEIS team and copied in Rosemary who I then began an email correspondence with, resulting in a meeting. The meeting itself took place in the department building on Victoria Street and comprised of (perhaps understandably) the most detailed examination of our policy concepts that took place. Civil servants, unlike MPs and other politicos, are keen to get into the fine details of policy areas and Rosemary certainly played ‘devil’s advocate’ when it came to examining our initiatives and asking difficult and searching questions about the concepts I brought up. Ultimately the meeting was a success from a Buy Rent Commercial perspective as Rosemary seemed to take our ideas seriously and believed that her department (BEIS) could realistically look at implementing some of the concepts and the possibility of taking them forward.
Submissions to Select Committees
As well as conducting meetings, writing policy briefings, researching, attending Parliamentary debates and other miscellaneous tasks; I made two written evidence submissions to select committees. The first was to a House of Lords Committee on ‘Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities’, although it was officially submitted from the Newquay Beach Hotel, many of the points that I raised in the evidence submission were pertinent to the general debate surrounding the role of small businesses within communities. The second was to the Housing and Local Government Select Committee’s inquiry into High Streets and Town Centres in 2030. Although the submission (officially tabled by BRC) was a strong one, it did not cite the two lead policy concepts that we discussed with MPs. It did not refer to capitalisation rates as we had not yet received the information that led to us developing the capitalisation rate concept. It also did not refer to tenancy deposit schemes, the reason being that as it was our main policy initiative we wanted to avoid publishing it as the concept may have been reappropriated by another organisation. In hindsight this was a mistake on my part as it would have been ultimately a positive thing to have had the tenancy deposit scheme concept out in the open. Ultimately, the publication of our evidence by two select committees is ultimately positive and reflects positively both on BuyRentCommercial.com and the Newquay Beach Hotel.
Hypothesis and Conclusion
In total I met with 13 Members of Parliament (2% of the 650 sitting MPs). A relatively small number and slightly smaller than I would have expected during my tenure as Head of Public Affairs. There are a few reasons for this; Firstly, although the period of employment at the company will have been approximately six months or 27 weeks, around 10 of those weeks of those have been during Parliamentary recess, when Parliament is not sitting, and the MPs are not in London. Essentially, almost 40% of the time I have spent at BRC has been Parliamentary recess, significantly reducing the window in which I would be able to be able to potentially have access to MPs. Secondly, the spectre of Brexit has unfortunately disrupted normal parliamentary life for a wide variety of lobbyists during the period between October through to the present (and will continue to do so until Brexit is resolved). Many MPs who failed to respond to my emails soliciting a face-to-face meeting would, in other circumstances been interested and many MPs who did respond cited the ongoing Brexit impasse as the reason that they did not have time to meet and discuss the issues concerning the high street and small businesses. I estimate that the ongoing constitutional wrangle over Brexit cost us at least five meetings with MPs over the time period that I was working at BRC which otherwise would have happened. Thirdly and finally, BRCs status as an unknown newcomer to the property scene probably precluded it from being an obvious choice for MPs to engage with. Typically members want to meet with much larger corporations or representatives of a trade body such as the British Retail Consortium).
Having said this, the response was universally positive from MPs (excepting the bigoted Chris Green). Their levels of enthusiasm varied from member to member but they all thought that the tenancy deposit scheme concept was a good idea and that the capitalisation rate issues deserved greater scrutiny. I feel confident that given the numbers of people that we were able to reach, coupled with the overwhelmingly affirmative response, that the concepts, especially the introduction of tenancy deposit schemes for commercial property will have entered the political and policy-making subconscious and may well be championed by a party, government department, an individual MP or minister in the future.