Author Archives: Iain Roberts

Twenty steps to pedestrian paradise – part 2

In part 1
, I talked about how pedestrians have been relegated to be second class citizens for the last half century or more. In this part, I will give you my twenty top tips to make life easier for pedestrians and get more people walking:

  1. Don’t make pedestrians wait at traffic lights. People on foot must press the “beg button”, asking permission to cross the road. They shouldn’t be forced to wait. Where possible, pressing the button should stop traffic and allow pedestrians to cross right away. On some roads,

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Twenty steps to pedestrian paradise – part 1

Are footbridges like this one built to benefit pedestrians? It allows people to cross the road safely distanced from cars, vans and trucks, so you might think this is pedestrian infrastructure. It is not: it is for the benefit of car drivers.

Someone sat down and weighed up the time lost by pedestrians in having to climb all those steps, cross the bridge and come down the other. They decided it was better to inconvenience people on foot – including disabled and elderly people with restricted mobility – than make drivers sit at traffic lights for any longer than they need to. These footbridges are there for motorists.

You can see judgements like this everywhere. People on foot are told to use dark, narrow, graffiti-covered, urine-soaked subways in order to spare drivers the inconvenience of slowing down or – horror of horrors – stopping. Traffic lights make pedestrians press a button and wait for a minute or more before deigning to allow them to cross, standing by the side of the road which drivers speed through. Shopping streets have narrowed pavements to cram in more space for cars to drive and park. Often our pavements themselves are used as car parks. Dark paths with overgrown vegetation create an atmosphere of fear. Pedestrian routes are left untreated in icy weather long after the roads have been gritted.

And that’s when pedestrians are even allowed. A walk from my neighbourhood to the area on the far side of the local river would once have taken five minutes. Two railway lines and a motorway now block the way and the same journey takes nearly half an hour. A bridge not far enough!

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Robert Jenrick’s Grand Designs

The government launched the National Model Design Code on Saturday.

Releasing important consultations over the weekend has become rather a tradition for MHCLG. Maybe they’re not fans of The Masked Singer.

Key to the Design Code is a belief that beautiful design can be objectively determined, and that people are more likely to support development in their area if the new neighbourhood looks attractive.

The Model Design Code is a good piece of work. Developed by consultancy URBED, it sets out a concise and understandable recipe for high quality places and attractive buildings. It includes guidance on coding plans, masterplans, movement, nature, public space, the built form, use of space and buildings, car parking and design.

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How to build a better bus network

272 million trips were made on trams and light rail in England in 2018/19 and more than 1.76 billion on trains in the same year. But the trusty bus accounted for almost 70% of all public transport journeys – a massive 4.31 billion.

Yet bus services are treated as the poor relative, as an afterthought. The result is fewer people using buses each year and fewer services being run. Rural bus routes have been especially badly hit, with subsidies drastically cut back through years of austerity.

We broadly agree on what we want from our buses. We want them to be fast, frequent, reliable, run early in the morning and late at night, be clean, safe and comfortable. These days we want USB charging points and free Wi-Fi (though with 4G and 5G becoming ubiquitous, Wi-Fi usage on buses is already falling). We want electric buses that pollute less: they cost about twice as much to buy, but fuel savings mean the lifetime cost of ownership is no more than a diesel bus.

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Fifteen minutes to paradise: cities for people

Over the last year the pandemic has brought home just how much time we spend – and waste – travelling. How many hours are eaten up stuck in traffic or on trains or buses, just going about our daily lives. Instead of responding to our needs, towns and cities demand that we shape our lives to suit them, and too often that means long, inconvenient, polluting trips.

How much better would it be if all the places you needed to visit regularly were within 15 minutes of your home: shops, cafes, restaurants, medical centre, park, playground, leisure centre, cinema and theatre as well as school and work. And all accessible without a car.

That’s the vision Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is following.

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A longer read for the lockdown – Winning the battle for our roads

This is the first in a series of articles exploring how we can improve the places we live and work

Entire neighbourhoods in Maartje van Putten’s city were being demolished to make space for the motor car, and still it demanded more. Bicycle use was falling year-on-year. Worst of all, road deaths were soaring.

The place was Amsterdam, the year was 1971. 400 children had died on the roads in the Netherlands that year – an agonisingly high toll. It could have continued, as it did in most other countries. Instead, Maartje and thousands of other Amsterdammers – including many mothers worried about what the future held for their children – decided to take a stand.

Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the child murder) was a grass-roots movement and Maartje van Putten was its first president. They marched, they blocked roads, they even got arrested. Many motorists were outraged: how dare these people take away their right to drive wherever they want at any time. But campaigners persevered. They sat down with politicians, they talked, and in time the politicians listened.

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The two most important questions to ask Lib Dem leadership candidates

My wife keeps up with the news, but she can’t recall the last time she saw a national story about the Lib Dems. As Labour and the Tories struggle to hold themselves together, the Lib Dems fight simply to be heard. For most people in the country there is a fading memory of a liberal voice where the party used to be.

With the party’s leadership election looming, that matters. There will be a big temptation among activists to make the contest a battle of ideologies. “Which candidate is closest to my beliefs?” members will ask, endlessly dissecting policy statements, tweets and voting records.

Don’t do it. Your ideology is really important, but the harsh truth is that it doesn’t matter whether our new leader shares it or not. Other things matter more.

Our new leader being heard by the millions of people like my wife matters more. Our new leader connecting with those people, giving them a sense that the Liberal Democrats is for people like them and is fighting for the things they care about: that matters more. A leader who ticks every one of your ideological boxes but fails to connect with the voters will do your cause no good at all.

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Vince’s next speech

Vince’s conference speech had a lot of good policies and ideas, but the party is still failing to  communicate a compelling vision. We are not giving enough people a good reason to vote  Lib Dem at the national level, despite the gaping hole in the middle of British politics. Here is a speech Vince could give to start communicating that vision.

Building a Future for Britain*

Britain is getting poorer and weaker. This is not what we were promised. Low wage growth has seen real incomes fall and, thanks to Brexit, our economy has gone from the strongest in the G7 to the weakest in just a year. An astonishing and disturbing collapse in our fortunes.

Our country is being failed by both the Conservatives and Labour. Theresa May offers no answers. Everything she does is aimed at saving just one job – her own. Jeremy Corbyn offers no end of answers – if only we had the money to pay for them all. We don’t.

Only the Liberal Democrats are committed to Building a Future for Britain.

A Britain confident enough to play its part in the world, working in partnership with others. A Britain that’s open for business, not putting up walls to keep everyone else out. A Britain where those who put in the work reap the rewards, and those who need help receive it.

If you want a job, or a better job than you have now, the Liberal Democrats will ensure you have the access to gain the skills you need – regardless of your age or situation. We will help you to improve your life to Build a Future for Britain.

If you have a job, the Liberal Democrats will ensure it is well paid. We will tackle the scourge of the gig economy to Build a Future for Britain.

If you are in business, the Liberal Democrats will support you, help you and ensure that you can trade across the EU and more widely throughout the world to Build a Future for Britain.

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The Liberal Democrats: on your side and fighting for you

The Liberal Democrat vote fell in June because too few voters believed we were the party on their side and fighting for them on the issues they cared about.

That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was the main one.

So what next?

Forget talk of a progressive alliance. Labour will use it to beat us up. Caroline Lucas championed a progressive alliance and for her troubles the Green vote more than halved. Labour are always happy to take Lib Dem votes lent to them in the cause of beating the Tories, but in Lib Dem/Conservative marginals Labour actively campaigned against the Lib Dems. Had they not done so, May probably wouldn’t be Prime Minister. But Labour prefers to stop the Lib Dems and Greens even if it means a Tory government and that’s not going to change.

No. The Lib Dems will only survive and prosper by carving out a space for ourselves. Not some theoretical slot on the left-right spectrum. Not simply “we’re not the Tories/Labour and we can win here”. But a space where a substantial proportion of the British public see the party as fighting for them and on their side.

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How computer-driven cars are likely to transform planning in your town


It’s 2026 and you’re heading to your local town with the family. Not owning a car, you tap your phone and within a few minutes a self-driving taxi pulls up. You relax in comfort as it drives to your destination, then drops you off by the shops and heads off for its next fare.

Your neighbour is heading to the shops too. She prefers to own and drive her own car. Having got to her destination, she taps a button and her car drives itself off to park in in out-of-town car park, where it waits for her to call it back to meet her.

The technology to do all of this not only exists today, but is in use on public roads. Uber has been testing self-drive taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh for months and Tesla and Google have self-drive cars on the roads. Right now a driver has to sit at the wheel, ready to take over if something goes wrong. That won’t be the case for long. Tech giants like Google, Apple and Uber along with traditional car makers like Ford are investing billions to bring genuine self-drive cars to our roads.

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What next for moderate Labour?

Corbyn has won. It’s clear that he will come out victorious in any leadership contest and the Chilcot report has put the final nail in the coffin of a serious challenge.

And more importantly the left of the Labour Party has won. Their project – to seize control of the levers of power within Labour and change the rules to turn it into a true hard-left socialist party – will take another couple of years, but it will almost certainly happen.

So Labour as a party of government is gone and Labour as a party of protest is here to stay. Despite my many and frequent disagreements with my political opponents in the red corner, I have to say that is a tragedy for our country.

The question moderate Labour members – including the vast majority of their MPs, all their MEPs and a large proportion of their councillors – are asking is, of course, “what next?”

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Where next for Syria?

On the night of the Syria debate I missed out on hearing Hilary Benn’s speech and instead paid a visit to my local mosque. Evening prayers had just finished and I sat in a room at the back with Dr Haytham Alhamwi, Director of Rethink Rebuild Society – “the voice of the Syrian Community of Manchester”.

Tempting as it was to discuss the rights and wrongs of the UK bombing campaign, we didn’t. It was clear that the vote would be won in Parliament. We were more interested in what happens next.

Whether you think that the UK joining the international bombing campaign in Syria is a good thing or a terrible mistake, we all want to get the best outcome. But what would that outcome look like?

We all know the situation in Syria is confusing, and I certainly didn’t leave the mosque with a perfect understanding – nothing like it. But over a coffee and a chocolate biscuit, I gained a much better grasp of what Dr Alhamwi’s organisation – and others like it who want to see a peaceful, democratic Syria – believe needs to happen.

Don’t give up on democracy

We saw western attempts to bring about democratic states in Afganistan and Iraq falter. We saw the Arab Spring burn brightly then sputter out. But, Dr Alhamwi argues, Syria can be transformed into a democracy. It won’t happen on its own, but it can be done.

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It isn’t always good for the Lib Dems when Labour and the Tories agree

There are no shortage of lessons for the Lib Dems to learn from our time in Coalition, but one of the most important is to understand the ability of the two main parties to work together to stitch us up like a kipper.

The rule is simple. If the Lib Dems want to get across a particular interpretation of an event, and both Labour and Tories agree on a different interpretation, we’re not going to do it.

I’ll give an example: tax cuts for the rich.

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Government’s apprentice plan to take money from NHS and councils

David Cameron has unveiled a plan to “boost apprenticeships and transform training”. No doubt it will have positive aspects, but – as so often – the cheery message hides some issues that should concern us.

Organisations are currently incentivised to take on apprentices with Government funding from BIS. For larger organisations in the public and private sector that is about to change. The funding will disappear completely and, instead, they will pay a tax called the “Apprenticeship Levy” to cover the costs.

This tax or levy will be hypothecated: companies will get first call on their own money and will be expected to spend it on the apprenticeship and training programmes where BIS previously covered much of the cost.

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Opinion: We won’t get a fair society unless progressive politicians challenge Thatcherism

For nearly four decades progressive politicians have been losing the war of words – and of votes – over the economy. Those on the right have successfully persuaded voters time and again that a less equal, less fair society is better for nearly everyone, and those who lose out probably deserve to.

The evidence suggests that the right wing politicians are wrong – that the economics followed by governments of all colours since the 1980s locks a large proportion of society into poverty. Most of those poorer people are, in the jargon beloved of party leaders everywhere, “hard working”.

Last month …

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Opinion: Demonisation of the rich is killing progressive politics

“Demonisation is the ideological backbone of an unequal society.” wrote left-wing commentator Owen Jones in his 2011 book “Chavs: the demonisation of the working class”. He was right but, at the same time,  summed up much that’s wrong with progressive politics in the UK.

Demonisation works both ways. It is easy – and entirely incorrect – to demonise the poor as chavs, crooks, benefit cheats and scroungers. As people who could be high-paid bankers and successful business-people if only they knuckled down and worked a bit harder.

But it’s also simple – and wrong – to demonise the wealthy and portray them as people who, almost to a man and woman, are happy to see the poor crushed underfoot if it boosts their bank balance by a few pounds. Yes, there are rich people happy to see their fellow citizens suffer if it further enriches them. There are people on middle and low incomes like that too. The demonisation of the rich may well have contributed to Labour losing the General Election – at least if we’re to believe the Labour leadership contenders now proclaiming aspiration as so important.

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Opinion: Mixed news on suicide tells us where to target our efforts

The UK suicide rate rose again in 2013, a worrying statistic that we should pay close attention to. True, the rate is still lower than at any time between 1981 and 2001 but, even so, the rise since 2007  should be of great concern.

But the overall figure masks some important variations. If we want to tackle the problem, we need to know where to focus our efforts and it turns out that suicides are not increasing for all groups.

Here is the good news: the suicide rate for women has fallen and is now the second lowest on record. For women aged 15-19 the news is even better: the suicide rate for this group is by some margin the lowest on record. Across nearly all ages, the number of women committing suicide is down or static.

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Opinion: Labour’s Tuition Fees policy is a tax cut for the rich, paid for by the poor

University of the West of England, laboratory, science. Some rights reserved by JiscEd Miliband is announcing that a Labour government would cut university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. It’s more of a re-announcement as the policy’s been knocking around for a while – and you can understand why. On the surface it sounds good.

In reality, Labour want a tax hike for the poor and a tax cut for the rich.

The Coalition’s Tuition Fees policy cut the cost of university for poorer graduates (but increased it substantially for the wealthiest) and has seen not only record numbers going to university, but also the highest ever number of young people from poorer backgrounds signing up. And yes, not the Lib Dems finest hour with the pledge and all that – no doubt commentators below the line will find new and interesting things to say on that topic that no-one’s thought of in the last four-and-a-bit years.

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Opinion: The case for a mayor for Greater Manchester  

In this article I’m going to make the case for a Mayor for Greater Manchester. I realise this isn’t going to be a popular position, particularly in Lib Dem circles. Our mayors – Dorothy in Watford and Dave in Bedford – are great of course. But what about Boris in London or that monkey in Hartlepool (twice re-elected) and don’t even get me started on Tower Hamlets. In the conversations I’ve had with Lib Dems, the word “mayor” is generally met with a look of horror.

But here’s the thing. About all those mayors have in common with what’s proposed for Greater Manchester is the name “mayor”. London, along with those councils who have opted for mayors, have “strong mayor” models. In these, the mayor is able to act alone. Typically they appoint their own cabinets with councillors or assembly members having little power to stop the mayor doing what he or she wants.

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Opinion: Make your City a Global success in six easy steps – part 2

The UK has a problem: outside London our cities underperform. They fail to generate as much wealth as they should and many are net drains on the public purse. That’s not the case in every country – the UK is unusual in its concentration of wealth and power in one big city.

In part 1 of my article I set out the first three of the six steps cities need to take to turn that situation around. In this concluding part I identify the final three steps.

Step four: create more employment

The study “Investing in City regions” (2014) by Volterra Partners identifies a correlation between employment density and earnings. Where employees are packed in more closely together, they tend to earn more and work in more knowledge-intensive industries. Employment areas are ten times denser in parts of London than in Manchester. Of course, denser employment makes transportation even more important and reduces the role of the car.

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Opinion: Make your city a global success in six easy steps – part 1

In 1900 just one in ten people lived in cities. Today over half do and nearly all population growth in the next few decades is expected to be in larger conurbations. Around the world cities are the engines of growth and prosperity, with governments working to tackle the challenges that brings with it.

The UK has a major city problem: with the exception of London our cities underperform. Other countries do it better – the concentration on one city at the expense of the rest is unusual. As the Royal Society report The Future of Cities (2014) says:

The relative underperformance of the large secondary cities, and the low number of cities that perform well above the national average, sets the UK apart.

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Opinion: Why I signed up for Devo Manc and a mayor for Greater Manchester

On Monday morning I was very pleased to be able to sign up to Devo Manc. I was deputising for Stockport’s Lib Dem leader Sue Derbyshire, joined in Manchester Town Hall by the leaders of the other nine Greater Manchester authorities along with George Osborne.

The Greater Manchester devolution deal came out of months of negotiation with the government, and it gives the city region more devolved powers than anywhere else in England, London included. I was surprised at how much we got. To give one example, I was assured just weeks ago that a regulated bus network for Greater Manchester was quite impossible: the DfT would never allow it. Yet there it is, in the deal.

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Opinion: We need to stop helping the other parties and change our message

The Liberal Democrats have achieved many good things in Government and stopped the Tories doing many bad things. As with every government, there have been mistakes and much that could have been done better, but with fewer than one in ten MPs the party has punched well above its weight and, as a result, many good Liberal Democrat policies are now being put into practise.

And yet the party is being hammered in the polls and we’ve just seen a disastrous set of local and European elections with the Liberal Democrats down to just a single MEP.

What’s gone wrong, above all …

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Opinion: Foodbanks: Are there more hungry people than a decade ago?

There are far more foodbanks, and foodbank users, than a decade ago. Many people have assumed that if more people are using foodbanks it must mean there are more hungry people in need – more having to choose between heating and eating – than there were.

But is that true? Does the evidence support it?

If a charity opened new refuges for abused women, we wouldn’t automatically take it as proof that domestic violence was shooting up. Similarly we can’t take the increase in foodbanks in itself as evidence of increased need.

There are three possibilities:

  • more people are in need than before
  • the increase

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Opinion: Cameron’s porn ban – what does it mean?

 "PC Baan" internet cafe in Seoul, Korea - Some rights reserved by HachimakiDavid Cameron is out to make the world a safer place by tackling what he sees as the problems caused by pornography. We don’t really know the details of the policy yet, but with Cameron doing the rounds on TV and radio today we’ve got a reasonable idea of what he’s got in mind.

Block pornography by default
Web filtering software is very common – most schools and businesses have it installed. It does a passable job of blocking access to undesirable sites whilst allowing others. Inevitably, some sites that you don’t want to block get caught up, but by and large the filters work OK.

Cameron’s concern is that they aren’t being extensively used by parents of younger children, and the suspicion (probably rightly) is that in many cases it’s because parents aren’t tech savvy enough to know they exist or how to implement them.

So this main headline item – that ISPs all implement filtering software for all customers, and that it be turned on by default (with someone in the household having to make a positive decision to turn it off) – is a “nudge” policy.

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Opinion: Does the School Food Plan really ban packed lunches?

school mealsIf you’re an independent person involved in writing a report for Government, I offer some advice. Take a holiday for the week after the report’s published. Somewhere remote. Ideally without internet.

How else to avoid your blood-pressure shooting through the roof as the media – both social and traditional – ignore 99% of your work and misrepresent the rest?

For the latest example, look no further than the School Food Plan, a 149 page practical guide to improving the health and attainment of young people by improving their diet in …

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Is liberalism wrong – and how would we know?

A couple of hours on Twitter is more than enough to see the acolytes of political philosophy A assuring the world that everyone who believes in political philosophy B is stupid, immoral or more than likely both. The favour is typically returned in kind.

And yet anyone who’s acquainted with that slightly curious place known as the “real world” knows there are many highly intelligent, moral and clear-thinking people in pretty much every camp. Anyone who thinks Burke, Mill or even Marx had nothing worthwhile to say is a fool.

Who’s actually right? Are our political philosophies just religions in which we must

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Opinion: Debate on Page 3 is missing the real issue

An American wife has claimed a divorce on grounds of cruelty because her husband ate too much garlic.

– So starts the main story on page 3 of the first edition of The Sun back in 1964, with not a nipple in sight.

By 1970, the now-Murdoch-owned paper was featuring racier matter and the topless “page 3 girl” was born. The Sun, which had been ailing, saw its circulation grow. On a typical day, The Sun is now read by over four million men and three million

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Opinion: What would Labour do?

“What would Jesus do?” ran the famous ‘90s slogan, often with little agreement on the answer. But that question seems positively trivial alongside the far more problematic “What would Labour do?”

As the Coalition is finding to its cost, Labour is often very effective at attacking Government plans but rather less forthcoming on what its alternative might be. And I imagine it must be a little galling for Government ministers when Labour decides to attack policies that they trumpeted in their own 2010 manifesto.

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Opinion: the problem of Welfare Reform

Ed Miliband has stirred up some New Year’s controversy, not least amongst his own supporters, with the news that Labour is to speak out more strongly against the perils of so-called “benefit scroungers”. Labour are no doubt concerned at consistent polling evidence suggesting that opposition to benefit cuts are out of step with the views of the public.

In reality, there’s little difference between the positions of the different parties, nor much change in the position of any individual party over the last couple of decades.

Across the mainstream political spectrum, few disagree that handing out state benefits too freely causes …

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Recent Comments

  • Tom Harney
    Of course most people are not going to decide their vote according to which party has a slogan about rejoining the EU. What would make a difference is a party w...
  • Martin
    Marco: Vince was always a fairly classy act. It is a pity he was not leader much earlier. I had hope that Ed might be able to have taken his cue from Vince a...
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    .. a broader problem however is that demographic changes meant the South West would have become harder to hold onto anyway as people have moved there and import...
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    In hindsight Vince was a better leader than I realised at the time. Despite slightly cringey statements like "B******s to Brexit" and "exotic spresm" he got to ...
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    Paul Fox 6th Dec '22 - 10:58am....If, as seems likely, there is a hung parliament after the next General Election, we need to be clear what it is that we will b...