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5 October 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 5:59am

Tim Farron: Westminster has been slow to engage with the internet

New garden cities, our digital future and why we should celebrate Non-Independence Day.

By Tim Farron

As I write, the news is covered with horribly familiar statistics. If you want to buy a house in 21st-century Britain, you will save well into your late thirties, or rely on outside help from the generations before you. The housing charity Shelter has put figures to it: one in five first-time buyers gets help from parents to the tune of an average £23,000 per deposit.

This in part explains why, after years off the polling charts, housing is now a regular feature in the top-five voter concerns. Decades of under-supply have caught up with homeowners, who share the frustration of the renters and the children they live with.

We have a choice, but unless we want to choose increased social inequality, homelessness and strangled job mobility, we cannot say no to homes. The real choice is not whether we build but how we build. If you travel to Germany or the Netherlands, you will see what planning for the long term can deliver – fresh developments fed by the infrastructure, schools and green spaces that make them good places to live in.

I can’t pretend that this is a job for one parliament. We need a long-term plan on housing, not a quick fix, and a crucial part of that should be new garden cities.

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As well as building developments of all sizes, we need to remove the practical and psychological barriers holding back our existing cities. Cities are the engines of 21st-century growth but if we want them to become powerhouses, free from the shadow of London, we are going to have to give them some power. This is about more than a clinical approach to economic growth, narrowly communicated in statistics and numbers of jobs delivered. It’s about allowing our regions the self-determination and respect they are worthy of. Greater Manchester is showing the rest of the country how it’s done: its councils have worked in partnership, looking beyond their own administrative borders to deliver a future for the region that will be far greater than the sum of its parts. Practically, we need to link up east with west and north with south, with better broadband and devolution on demand. We also desperately need skilled local leaders who can dream better for their regions and see the connections between disparate areas. I want to see younger people especially get involved in local politics. It’s time to stop accepting second-best for what could be first-class cities.

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Sixty-four per cent of Europeans say they can’t imagine life without it but barely 20 years ago it was a topic confined to computer scientists. In a shockingly short time, the internet has transformed us but its future is far from simple. Bob Kahn, one of the “fathers of the internet”, writes chillingly: “If the internet stumbles, it will not be because we lack for technology, vision, or motivation. It will be because we cannot set a direction and collectively march into the future.”

Westminster has been slow to engage with the internet. Our system of regulation is insufficient to provide the protections we need in this digital age and the more tech-savvy you are, the more uncomfortable you tend to be with the way our data is mined and monitored. I’ve called for the appointment of a commission of experts to review the powers held by the state that has imposed blanket surveillance on us all. I am thrilled that, working with Julian Huppert, we have been able to get a digital bill of rights into our party’s manifesto.

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Scotland has voted to stay in the Union and its choice should change the whole country. I am relieved, delighted and reassured by the Scots’ decision – but I am increasingly concerned by the aftermath. Will England remember this as much as it should? I want us to mark this vote annually with a national non-independence day. I’ll explain why.

It struck me that it is obvious we should remember great conflicts. Reflecting on the sacrifices of previous generations, the tragic wars they fought, is a crucial part of making sure that we don’t take our peace for granted. We learn about the sacrifices that people before us made so we can understand where we have come from and what we stand for.

Scotland has shown us once again what we stand for – a unity that isn’t threatened by diversity. It is defined by it. We have always been a multicultural country. But if Westminster defaults to political point-scoring (or, even worse, stops talking about anything outside England), it will lose the greatest potential outcome of the vote: a clearer national identity, one that says we are different and we should be free to choose our own fates but, even so, that we’re better together.

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I recently discovered that cinema is cutting out a third of our women and we don’t even notice. Only 17 per cent of the people in film crowd scenes are women but viewers assume they are almost equally represented.

This matters more than you might expect. In films this year, as Soraya Chemaly notes, “Men are much more likely to be seen as attorneys and judges (13 to one), academics (16 to one), doctors and medical practitioners (five to one). Just three female characters were represented as political leaders with power. One didn’t speak. One was an elephant. The last was Margaret Thatcher.” Imagine the effect on our children. My daughter will choose her GCSEs in two years. Our film industry is telling her that it would be unusual for her to become a scientist.

Last month, the actress Emma Watson invited men to join women in creating a fairer society. Ninety-three per cent of directors are men, so it’s clear this isn’t a “women’s issue”. It’s an issue for all of us – for my two sons as well as my daughters and for all of us who don’t realise just how unconsciously sexist, racist, not-the-normist we are. Male directors, get women in your crowds!

Tim Farron is the party president of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale

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