Johnson Pledges Cash to Boost High Streets in ‘Overlooked’ Towns
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson made a pitch for votes in “overlooked” towns with a promise to revive high streets through tax breaks for local businesses and reopening provincial railway lines, while the main opposition Labour Party pledged to roll out free full-fiber broadband for all with a plan that includes nationalization of BT Group Plc’s Openreach unit.
The U.K. prime minister on Friday announced cuts to business rates for shops, pubs and cinemas, and promises 500 million pounds ($644 million) to help restore local rail networks that were cut as a result of 1960s reforms. There was also an announcement of 150 million pounds of funding to help local community groups buy pubs and post offices to rescue them from closure.
The target of the fiscal affection is clear: Johnson is trying to win over disaffected Labour voters with a pledge to deliver Brexit and “unleash” the potential of towns and cities nationwide. With the Dec. 12 general election less than a month away, he’s relying on winning Labour-held seats in central and northern England to give him the majority he needs in the House of Commons to approve the Brexit deal he’s brokered with the European Union.
“For too long, too many towns and villages across Britain have been overlooked and left behind,” Johnson said in a statement. “We will invest in these communities and help people put the heart back into the places they call home. We need to get Brexit done so that we can unleash the potential of all our towns, cities and villages.”
The premier’s largesse, however, was eclipsed by Corbyn’s broadband promise, which Labour’s finance spokesman estimated would cost 20 billion pounds. It adds to the planned nationalizations of water and energy utilities, the Royal Mail, and the railways. ”What was once a luxury is now an essential utility,” Corbyn will say in a speech in Lancaster, northern England on Friday.
Johnson’s Conservatives named towns in eight constituencies in the north and the Midlands that could benefit from the party’s announcement; five of them in Labour-held seats and another two in Tory seats with relatively slim majorities over Labour. The opposition party, for its part, blamed the Tories for budget cuts that deprived councils of funds to spend on local services.
“A decade of vicious cuts to the services that people in our communities rely on, has taken 60 pence in every pound from council budgets,“ Labour’s communities spokesman, Andrew Gwynne, said in a statement, citing figures from the Local Government Association.
Johnson is trying to put a series of electoral missteps behind him after a couple of days in which he’s come under criticism from opposition parties and local residents for mishandling floods in northern England, while health statistics showed delays for accident and emergency treatment and hospital care at their highest levels since targets were introduced for both.
“Any decent health secretary worth their salt would today apologize to patients for the worst A and E waits on record,” Labour’s health spokesman, Jon Ashworth, said on Twitter, criticizing Health Secretary Matt Hancock for telling BBC radio that “in many ways the NHS is performing better than it ever has.”
Labour earlier in the week pledged to increase annual health spending by 26 billion pounds over the next five years, 6 billion pounds more than Conservative promises.
Even an attempt by the Tories to attack Labour over immigration ended up backfiring when Home Secretary Priti Patel was forced to row back on a pledge that the Tories would cut immigration.
Patel released analysis suggesting net immigration would surge to 840,000 under Labour, and tweeted that Tory policies would enable them to “reduce immigration overall.” But later in the day, she repeatedly refused to say in a BBC interview whether the Conservatives wanted to cut immigration, replying that they would “control” it. Johnson also refrained from promising to cut immigration, saying only during a campaign event in Bristol that it may come down “in some sectors.”
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, said he wouldn’t put an “arbitrary” target on immigration and that he wanted any system to be “fair,” allow key workers into the country, and ensure families aren’t kept apart.
On Thursday, candidate nominations for the general election closed with a fresh blow to the Tories. After Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage at the start of the week said he wouldn’t stand candidates in 317 seats won by the Conservatives in the 2017 election, the Tories had hoped he might pull back from some of their Labour target seats too, for fear of splitting the pro-Brexit vote.
Pressure on Brexit Party
But Farage instead said he’d fight all Labour-held seats. He faced a setback of his own when just a minute before the close of nominations, Rupert Lowe, the Brexit Party candidate in ultra-marginal Dudley North announced he would not be standing for fear of splitting the pro-Brexit vote. Later, Farage told the BBC that about 285 of his candidates were registered to fight for places in the 650-seat House of Commons.
Farage earlier said his candidates “are now coming under relentless phone calls, emails and abuse and being told they should stand down.” Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice later issued a statement saying he’d been “dismayed by the behavior of senior Conservative Party figures” after the party’s candidates had “been offered jobs and titles to stand down as candidates.” The Tories denied the allegations.
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