Author Archives: Peter Cleasby

About Peter Cleasby

If I have a formal occupation it’s as a governance, policy and management consultant, though these days I’d only take on projects in which I was really interested. See www.quantera.co.uk Current interests. I’m: •a volunteer watchkeeper at the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, •an active Exeter Green Party member, •a member of Exeter University’s social sciences and international studies research ethics committee, •a blogger, mostly on environment society and public policy, and •happily married and living in central Exeter. And a rather passive member of some good civic Exeter organisations. Formerly: •Chairman, Plunkett Foundation •Vice-Chairman, CPRE Devon (Campaign to Protect Rural England) •member, CPRE national Policy Committee •board member, Community Council of Devon (now Devon Communities Together) •board member, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England); •Deputy Director at Defra, MAFF, Department of Social Security (and other types of civil servant) •Standards Committee member at Thames Valley Police Authority •secretary of a village community association when we lived in Bucks.

The Party really is over

Every household in the country will be receiving around now the usual leaflets from their General Election candidates , including those delivered free of charge by the Royal Mail.  Each leaflet is normally a mix of national party policies and some words about the local candidate we are being encouraged to vote for.  It is, after all, the local candidate’s name on the ballot paper.

This morning, the post included a 4 sided A4 leaflet exhorting me to vote for a candidate called Theresa May.  Well, even if I wanted to vote for her I couldn’t, because she’s standing somewhere in the Thames Valley and I live in Devon.  The identity of my local Conservative candidate remains a mystery.

Closer examination of the leaflet reveals it doesn’t meet the requirements for a free-delivery leaflet [1].  For example, it doesn’t show the words “Election Communication” and it doesn’t mention the constituency or local candidate.  So, although this leaflet is being delivered by Royal Mail as if it were the normal free delivery leaflet, it isn’t.  Which means that Theresa May’s backers must have paid the Royal Mail a substantial sum of money to deliever them.   And, because the leaflet is a national one, it won’t count against the more restrictive local election expenses limits – just like the fake front pages in some local newspapers.

OK, so we know having lots of money gives certain electoral advantages, despite the UK’s self-satisfied delusion that we keep a tight lid on election expenses.  What this leaflet also says is that the Conservative Party has ceased to be a recognisable British political party and has become the creature of its leader.  On the second page there is An Important Message From Theresa May To You, which ends as follows:

The only way you can ensure we have the strong and stable leadership to get this [Brexit] right is by backing me, and voting for my Conservative candidate in your local area.

Get that?  It’s “my” Conservative candidate.  Not “the” Conservative candidate.  Assuming she wins, collective Cabinet decision-making is going to be a bit of a laugh, isn’t it?  Personally, I find it chilling.

NOTES

[1]  The Royal Mail rules are available in a booklet downloadable from http://www.royalmail.com/corporate/electoral-services/candidate-mailing

Is the Prime Minister fake news?

Last week the Conservative Party – rebranded nationally as “Theresa May’s Team” – bought advertising space in a dozen local papers around the country to promote the Prime Minister’s general election campaign [1].  Nothing wrong in that in principle: it’s a long-standing habit of political parties to pay for advertising.  The towns and cities in question appear to be Parliamentary seats which the Tories are targeting to win.  So far, business much as usual.

The commentariat has tended to criticise the tactic as a way of getting around spending limits for constituency election campaigns.  It’s a targeted national campaign which doesn’t mention the local candidates so it’s not local spending, and it’s all within Electoral Commission rules.

Frankly, that’s a second-order complaint.  The Conservative Party is simply doing what any advertiser would do given the opportunity.  If it’s an unintended loophole in the spending rules, it can be put right.  Much more insidious, and an example of further erosion of any semblance of standards in corporate behaviour, is the way in which the newspapers allowed the ads to be designed and placed.

What the local papers did – or, probably more accurately, what they were told to do by their corporate owners – was to accept the advertisement in the form of a wrap-around, with each paper’s normal masthead integrated into the paid-for “front page”.  In other words, a blatant attempt to mislead readers into thinking their local paper was supporting Mrs May’s election campaign.

Defenders of the scheme have argued that people would easily see that it was an advertisement.  Really?  Two points here.  First, at least on the fake front page of the Exeter Express and Echo, the words “ADVERTISER’S ANNOUNCEMENT” are set in a white font on a pale grey background.  This is invisible to anyone looking at the paper from a distance, on a newsstand for example.

20170509_131710 (2)

The top half of the fake front page, Express & Echo, 4 May 2017.  Can you see “Advertiser’s Announcement”?

Second, it’s not unheard of for national papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail to trumpet their support for a political party as editorial matter on their front pages.  If they can do it, why should people be surprised that the local papers are doing the same?

The advertising impact isn’t limited to people who buy the paper: indeed, they will soon discover the real front page inside and put Mrs May in the recycling.  What the technique achieves is massive exposure of Mrs May’s slogans because the papers – typically weekly ones – are displayed on newsstands for a whole week.  These stands are often to be found in prominent places in major retailers: in Exeter, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have separate stands for the Echo in the entrance areas.

20170509_131151 (2)

Sainsbury’s, Alphington Road, Exeter.  Photographed after 6 days’ continuous exposure.  Note the real front page in the middle of the display.

The edition of the Exeter paper that carried the fake front page also ran a leader article entitled “Delivering facts not fake news” [2].  The irony of this was lost on the paper’s editor.  In response to my complaint to him about the fake front page, Mr Parker said:

“The material carried this week was part of a nationwide advertising initiative by the Conservative Party and the decision to publish it was made solely for business reasons as we are, after all, a business.

“It was made clear that this was an advertising arrangement with the Conservative party and is something we are at the moment exploring with other political parties.

“Again, any future decisions will be based on the commercial side of the business and will have absolutely no bearing on the way the Express and Echo covers editorially any news stories whether or not they are of a political nature.

“I cannot emphasise enough that we are a totally independent news operation and proud of that fact and will continue to be so.”

Taking advertisers’ money is one thing.  Trying to mislead your readers – who may not be interested in the distinction between the commercial and editorial sides of the business – is quite another.  And since the rules on political balance don’t apply to the press, we can assume that only those parties who can pay out hard cash for wrap-arounds will be included in the exploratory discussions Mr Parker refers to.

Up in Westmoreland, where the local paper also ran a fake front page, there is some community anger, threatening a boycott of the rag [3].  Something worth considering everywhere else, since even if local papers no longer care about their reputations, their owners do care about sales and profits.

Meanwhile Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and all other retailers giving prominence to local papers should move the newsstands carrying the fake front page to the nearest back room until normal service is resumed.

NOTES

[1] For a list of papers and constituencies, see https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/how-the-conservatives-are-using-local-adverts-to-get-around

[2] A longer version of the article is in the online version at http://www.devonlive.com/8203-in-an-age-of-fake-stories-we-always-provide-trusted-news/story-30314208-detail/story.html

[3]  See https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/05/09/northern-community-boycotts-local-paper-over-tory-wrap-around-ad/

Is our democracy OK?

The behaviour of Trump and May over the past few days should make us ask some hard questions about our governance.

I don’t normally go to public demonstrations.  Yesterday evening I made an exception, and joined in one of the many rallies around the country provoked by President Trump’s travel ban.  Even more out of character, I stood up on a bench, took the proffered microphone and spoke to the crowd.

The rally was in Exeter and some 700 attended. The speakers before me had concentrated, rightly, on the impact of Trump’s travel ban and the damage and hurt it was already doing to individuals and families.  They spoke movingly, based on personal experience and knowledge.  I spoke to highlight the other spectre in the room – the UK Prime Minister, who failed to condemn the ban when first asked about it, and has since made only mild disapproval known through other ministers and her spokespersons.  This is further evidence that Mrs May is not keen on human rights – during the EU referendum campaign, her most memorable intervention was to favour withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU).

Mrs May has steered our country into a position where our government is in effect begging the United States for an early post-EU trade agreement, as if that were the only priority in international relations.  Trump had barely paused for breath after being sworn in as President, before she was on a plane to see him.  And Trump knows we are the supplicant: the pointed refusal at the press conference to confirm his “100% backing” for NATO that May claims to have extracted from him; the hand-holding; and the executive order for the travel ban as soon as she was on the plane home (he clearly couldn’t have tipped her off, otherwise she would not have been so equivocal when asked about it in Turkey – wouldn’t she?)

What we’re seeing is the two leaders of the “special relationship”– both novices in their own way – practising bad government.  Trump is rushing out executive orders on hugely controversial topics, firing anyone he can who disagrees with him (the acting US Attorney General has just been removed), and allowing his press secretary to use inflammatory language: the Attorney-General was guilty of “betrayal”, the senior US diplomats who are protesting against Trump’s policies should “either get with the programme or they can go.”  No respect, no acknowledgement that others may have a point.

Back on our side of the pond, the Prime Minister is unmoved by a petition of over 1.5 million signatures protesting against a state visit by Trump – note that the objection is to a state visit involving the Queen, not to a working political visit.  Statements from May and her office completely fail to recognise the strength of feeling on the issue: she’s issued the invitation and that’s that, is the line.  Even though it’s unprecedented (I think) for a state visit invitation to be issued no more than a week after the invitee has taken office – but then there’s that trade deal to be thought about, isn’t there?  A deal, by the way, that will almost certainly favour the US more than the UK, and will resurrect the objectionable elements of the now-defunct TTIP [1].

Our Prime Minister also has scant regard for Parliament.  It took a decision of the Supreme Court to reassert the need for Parliament’s authority to approve the decision to give our Article 50 notification to the EU.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the behaviour of May and Trump highlights the fragility of the arrangements for representative democracy, here and in the US.  Government is, at the end of the day, a series of negotiated settlements between competing interests, and the purpose of elections is to redefine from time to time what the “public interest” is in those negotiations.  Ministers need to be sensitive to the views of others, open to change where that seems to be in the public interest, and ready to acknowledge and respect other views even where they do not agree with them.

It would be ironic if the two countries who perhaps more than any others stood firm in the defence of freedom, tolerance and democracy during the 20th century were now to be debased by leaders who prefer diktat to persuasion.  But that is what seems to be happening.  In the UK, Parliament needs to remember that it is the source of all legitimate authority – and start acting on it.  And a critical appraisal of our governance should be high on its list of priorities.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was being negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and the US until talks broke down last year.  In the name of “free trade” the TTIP would have led to some weakening of EU rules on the environment, food standards and employee rights; and would have ensured that once a public service had been privatised it could never be returned to the public sector.  It was drafted as, in effect, a charter for big business to do pretty much what it liked.

More Hovis than Bovis

Like a loaf of bread, the house bullder Bovis is a bit crumbly.  Its chief executive has just departed, in advance of some poor financial results.  One of the company’s problems seems to be that it can’t build the houses it promised to build.

At the end of last year Bovis issued a profits warning.  It stated: “We have experienced slower-than-expected build production across the group’s sites during December, resulting in approximately 180 largely built and sold private homes that were expected to complete in 2016 being deferred into early 2017”[1].

One story not covered in the company’s media releases featured heavily in The Times this morning, and also in the Guardian [2].  This is that Bovis was paying purchasers cash of between £2000 and £3000 to complete the purchase of new homes even though the houses were not ready.  Some 650 people are members of the Bovis Homes Victims Group [3] set up on Facebook to share their depressing experiences.

One lesson to be drawn from this story is that reliance on the volume housebuilders to deliver the housing we need is a fool’s errand.  Despite its use of standard designs, of as low a density and as a high a price as they can get away with, Bovis hasn’t met its own targets.  Moreover, all large housebuilders shy away from building on brownfield – previously developed – land because it costs more to build there than on green fields.  And so we get urban sprawl and loss of productive farming land or greenspace for us to enjoy.  Meanwhile the government blames local authorities and the planning system for delays, while turning a blind eye to the failings among its own corporate supporters.

At the same time, small and medium-sized housebuilders are having difficulty finding land on which to build homes, as a recent report from the Federation of Master Builders and the Local Government Information Unit showed [4].  The report did aim criticism at local authorities for concentrating on large developments when drawing up local plans, a charge that is certainly true in some areas.  This bias against small firms also hinders the development of housing co-operatives which design the housing their members want rather than what the housebuilders tell them they can have.

NOTES

[1] Bovis Homes Group plc press release 28 December 2016 at http://www.bovishomesgroup.co.uk/media-centre/press-releases/press-release-173/pre-close-update/

[2] Guardian story at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jan/11/bovis-accused-of-pressurising-buyers-to-move-into-unfinished-homes  The Times is behind a paywall.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/groups/BovisVictimsGroup/

[4] http://www.fmb.org.uk/about-the-fmb/policy-and-public-affairs/new-fmb-research/

A basic income should be a basic instinct

The idea of an unconditional basic income, payable to all citizens, has been around in various forms for many years now.  The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) was founded in 1986 to provide a European, and subsequently world-wide, network for discussion and development of basic income proposals, and its excellent website is well worth a browse.

BIEN defines a basic income as having 5 characteristics:

  • Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
  • Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
  • Individual: it is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
  • Universal: it is paid to all, without means test.
  • Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.

Some countries are already experimenting with the concept.  In Finland the government is planning to trial a partial basic income of 560 euros per month [1].  The Dutch Parliament has recently debated the concept, and the government is responding with tentative but controversial proposals [2].  In the UK, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is exploring the idea of a citizen’s income and is holding an oral evidence session in January 2017 [3]. The Green Party of England and Wales is committed to the concept and published a detailed consultation paper in the run-up to the 2015 general election [4].

Deciding whether – and if so how – to proceed could keep politicians, economists and social scientists fully occupied for many more years yet.  But if anyone has doubts about the principle they should go and see Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake.  It speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our system of benefits under which entitlement to benefits depends on meeting certain tests.

The central character, Blake, has been told by his doctors that he should not return to work as a carpenter following a heart attack until his medication has had time to be effective and he himself is fully rested.  He applies for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, or Incapacity Benefit to those of us of a certain age).  Because his condition does not prevent him doing basic physical functions, like walking, he fails to score enough points in the tick-box assessment interview and his claim is refused.  He has no other source of income, so applies for Jobseeker’s Allowance (formerly Unemployment Benefit).  To qualify he is required to take active steps to look for work, trudging round a grim-looking Newcastle-upon-Tyne leaving his handwritten CV with potential employers.  When he’s offered a job, he can’t accept it because he’s been told by the doctors not to work.  Meanwhile his appeal against the refusal of ESA is delayed.  To raise money to live on he sells his furniture.  It is a vicious, vicious trap.

What Blake fears losing most of all is his self-respect.  One of the most sympathetic characters I have ever encountered in cinema, he is eventually brought low by a support system that makes automatons of the people who administer it and which – in the endless quest for “simplification”, aka saving money – has had its ability to respond to human need knocked out of it.

The irony is that the greatest simplification of all – an unconditional basic income available to everyone – is easily within the government’s grasp.  There would be no assessments, no qualifying rules, and, in the frightening language of the Department of Work and Pensions, no “sanctions”.  Implementing it would mean there should be no more Daniel Blakes.

NOTES:

[1]  A summary of the experiment is at http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=15135&langId=en

[2]  See http://basicincome.org/news/2016/10/netherlands-design-of-bi-experiments-proposed-meets-criticism-from-stakeholders/

[3]  See http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news-parliament-2015/citizens-income-launch-16-17/

[4]  Downloadable at https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Policy%20files/Basic%20Income%20Consultation%20Paper.pdf

 

 

Devolution doesn’t always mean taking back control

Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, successive UK governments have fiddled around with ways of devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall.  The most radical has been Scottish devolution, which continues to evolve.  The least coherent has been the patchwork of schemes developed across England, ranging from a well-thought out arrangement for London, with a directly elected mayor and assembly, to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along “devolution deals” for the rest.

The coalition government of 2010-15 abolished – wisely – the regional governance bureaucracies.  The first big replacement idea was Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), intended as “business-led” mechanisms for spending public money.  The areas covered by LEPs were in some cases obvious, based for example on established city regions or former metropolitan counties.  In others the rationale was less clear, perhaps nowhere more so than the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP, covering a massive area from Plymouth to the south of Bristol [1].  It’s tempting to think that after Cornwall decided to go their own way and Bristol wasn’t having any truck with its Somerset neighbours, that HotSW was the “bit left over”.

The performance of these fundamentally secretive and undemocratic bodies is not the focus of this post [2].  They are relevant because the LEP areas have in some cases – including HotSW – formed the basis of the subsequent devolution proposals in England.

The government has been inviting groups of local authorities to submit proposals for devolving decision-making in certain functions, particularly infrastructure and economic development, but not limited to these.  The rationale behind this approach is that increasing productivity, a key goal of government policy, is best achieved by local targeting of support measures through local authorities and business interests working together.  The government has made it clear that access to some central funding is dependent on devolution deals being agreed.  Invariably, local authorities across the area commit to setting up a “combined authority” to take the decisions.  Unlike London, this would not be directly elected but would be made up of the leaders of the constituent councils plus non-elected representatives of the NHS and the LEP.  Initially, agreement to a having directly-elected mayor was a condition of a devolution deal but the government now seems to be less rigid on this.

One of the problems with this approach is that it was designed for large urban areas.  Greater Manchester, for example, has operated as a partnership of councils across a coherent area since the 1960s when Passenger Transport Authorities were set up.  Manchester is the trail-blazer in the current devolution game, and it clearly works for them.

What is less clear is that the combined authority structure will work well in those areas of England that aren’t part of a conurbation.  A pretentious-sounding body called The Independent Commission on Economic Growth and the Future of Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England produced a report last year arguing for devolution deals for the rest of England [3].  It does make the useful point that LEP areas do not in most cases coincide with functional economic areas (a conclusion which should be enough to discredit the whole idea of LEPs), but is otherwise a typical product of this debate in that it focusses on structures and “partnerships” from which communities are largely excluded.

The councils within the HotSW area have submitted a devolution bid to the government [4].  The bid identifies 6 challenges for the area (low productivity growth, limited labour market, patchy performance in innovation and enterprise, an ageing population, health and care integration, infrastructure and connectivity) and 6 “Golden Opportunities” for improving growth and productivity (marine, nuclear, aerospace and advanced engineering, data analytics, rural productivity, health and care).  The bid has a wholly economic focus: other than in references to care, the word “social” does not appear in the document, and there is no acknowledgement of the impacts of the plans on the natural environment.

If the bid succeeds – and at least some of the councils are treating the whole exercise with a degree of caution – decision-making on the plans and services covered by the bid will be sucked upwards from the councils and the people they represent.  How the combined authority will balance the interests of, say, Plymouth with those of people in the Mendips will be discussed in officer-led groups behind closed doors – because that is the only way “partnership” working can be made to operate in practice.  The need to prepare for joint meetings gives authority officers huge influence over agendas and decisions because of the need to coordinate positions and identify common solutions in advance of meetings.

The combined authority itself will be made up of leaders of the constituent councils and others.  It will not be directly elected.  Trying to influence its decisions will be next to impossible for individuals and community groups.  The bid’s economic focus ignores environmental and community questions completely, so being able to provide a counter-balance is hugely important.  As it is, the bid’s environmental credentials are defined by the partnership’s LEP-led role as a cheerleader for the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Other devolution bids across England generate similar challenges.  At a time when disillusion with our politics is at an all-time high, it is puzzling – to put it mildly – that decision-making is to move even further away from the people most affected

 

NOTES:

[1]  The map of LEP areas at www.lepnetwork.net/the-network-of-leps/ shows just how large the area is.

[2]  An excellent House of Commons briefing note (July 2016) provides a concise guide to LEPs including reviews of their performance – see www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05651.pdf

[3]  See www.local.gov.uk/non-met-commission

[4]  The bid document is at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/files/2016/01/Heart-of-the-South-West-Devolution-Prospectus.pdf

A four and a half pound note?

Exeter leads the way in unconventional money.

450 years ago the Exeter Ship Canal – the first canal in England with locks – was opened.  Built to replace the unnavigable River Exe – which had been blocked by successive Earls of Devon to force goods from the sea to unload at Topsham and reach Exeter by land and so pay their exorbitant tolls – it predated the canal mania by over 200 years.  A grand scheme to link Exeter to the Bristol Channel via a canal passing near Tiverton and on to Bridgwater never materialised in full, though a Tiverton branch survives today.

So without musing too long on what might have been, the opening of the Exeter Ship Canal in 1566 remains an important moment in the city’s history [1].  And what better way to commemorate that anniversary than by an unusual embellishment to a scheme intended to benefit the local economy.

The Exeter Pound has been legal tender in the city since September 2015 [2].  Like other complementary or community currency schemes, it aims to ensure more of the wealth generated by local trade remains local, so boosting independent businesses and enhancing the range of traders available to the local community.

Yesterday (30 July), a new note was unveiled to join the £E1, £E5, £E10 and £E20 notes already in circulation.  Unusually, its value is £E4.50p.  The denomination was selected to mark the 450th anniversary of the opening of the canal, and the design of the note, shown below, reflects this.

450 note

A large-size mock-up of the note was brought up the canal to the city by boat and presented by an awesomely well-dressed replica of a Tudor merchant – in reality a director of the Exeter Pound Community Interest Company – to the city’s Lord Mayor.  The presentation was apt, because Exeter City Council provided resources to help get the scheme off the ground.

presentation

All a bit of fun, but with a serious purpose.  According to NEF [3] small shops are closing at a rate of 2,000 a year, and small and medium-sized businesses employ 58% of the private sector workforce.  Community currencies can combat this: for every £1 spent they return significantly more than £1 to the local economy.  This is the so-called multiplier effects which means the local pound is spent repeatedly in the local economy.  By contrast, spending your £1 in a national chain shop means that much less than £1 remains local.  That’s why the chains are not allowed to join the Exeter Pound scheme, and only local, independent businesses can trade in it.

There are 163 of them in Exeter– and well worth your support.  These businesses exist to serve the local community, and are the antithesis of the self-serving and greedy culture which has been so visible in the downfall of BHS.  They are an essential part of rediscovering business decency and community-oriented values, not just here in Exeter, but everywhere where a community currency is taking off [4]. If  nations can be bound together by national currencies (ie not the Euro) so can communities by their local pounds.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The Exeter Ship Canal’s future is by no means secure. A support group, the Friends of the Exeter Ship Canal – friendsofexetershipcanal.co.uk/ – has recently been established to help ensure the canal’s future as an active waterway and as a beautiful part of Exeter’s heritage landscape.  They welcome new members.

[2]   The Exeter Pound website – exeterpound.org.uk – provides all the information you need about the scheme, including the traders who accept £Es and where you can change sterling for £Es.

[3]  The New Economics Foundation (NEF) website has a wealth of information about the benefits of community currencies – see http://www.neweconomics.org/issues/entry/community-currencies

[4]  As ever, the south-west is well-represented with community currencies.  Schemes are operating or in development in Bristol, Cornwall, Plymouth, Totnes and Stroud.