Category Archives: Public policy

The Softly, Softly referendum

Sesto Calende, Italy

Until we arrived in Sesto Calende, a small town in Italy’s Lombardy region, we knew nothing about the forthcoming referendum on 22 October seeking greater autonomy from Rome for the region.  We were, though, well aware of the planned referendum in the Spanish province of Catalonia which has been attracting international headlines.

The reasons for the difference are not difficult to fathom.  The referendum in Catalonia – which may or may not be held on 1 October – is about independence from the Spanish state, based on the idea of Catalonia as a distinct nation with its own language and culture.  This has so frightened the government in Madrid that they went to court seeking to have referendum declared illegal, and won.  Since then the national government has been using a variety of methods to enforce the court judgement, including the use of police to seize stockpiled ballot boxes and papers, threatening the arrest of public officials and closing down websites.

Here in Lombardy things could not be more different.  The regional administration have made it very clear that they are not seeking independence.  Language, culture and nationhood don’t really figure.  What they want is greater “autonomy” about what happens to the region’s taxes. Many people in the prosperous north resent the taxes they generate being transferred by Rome to the south, often perceived as indolent.  And the national government, unlike its Spanish counterpart, appears to be treating the Lombardy referendum with indifference.  Our friends here say there has been minimal national media coverage, and the regional administration has been running an extensive poster campaign – often on public transport – to drum up interest.

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It will be interesting to see which approach delivers results in the long term.

 

 

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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

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements.  Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage.  Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.

But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy.  And here in Devon, we have a fine example.

On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon [1].  The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”.  A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”.  The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.

Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure.  The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.

In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board.  Nothing at all.  So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it.  Nothing at all.

Next step, ask the council.  After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception .  However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.

So, here we are.  A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.

Open government, indeed.  I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability.  Watch this space for their response.

The second part of this post is at http://www.agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-2/

 

NOTES

[1]  The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/    The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.

Fifth of May, Polling Day

A guide to what goes on when the campaigning is over

7am.  Take up position at the entrance to a city centre polling station, as a teller for the Green Party.  Put on the party rosette which resembles the badges stuck on pigs for winning first prize at an agricultural show.  Lib Dem and Labour also arrive, but no sign of Tories – we collectively assume that they have no hope of winning a seat in the ward, so are putting their efforts into winnable areas.  Labour have misread the rules on what can be shown on a rosette and have deleted their party name.  Realise I’ve forgotten to bring a book to read.  Sporadic chat amongst the tellers.  40 voters in the first two hours after the polls open.  But then we’re not really a city of early risers.

What is telling?
It’s about getting the maximum number of people to vote.  When canvassing support on the doorstep, political parties make a note of people who say they will support them.  When a person comes to the polling station to vote, tellers will ask for their individual polling number, and send back lists of those who have voted to the party’s local HQ.  These lists are matched against the list of known party supporters, to identify who hasn’t voted.  Known supporters who haven’t voted are then visited and encouraged to vote; and known supporters who have voted are not bothered again on the day.  Tellers don’t know how people vote – only that they have voted.

9am.  Hand over the telling sheets to my relief.  Coffee, and home.

11am.  Back at the polling station for the second of my two-hour stints.  Still no Tory.  Several voters come to wrong polling station because they’ve always voted there, and now find that following the ward boundary changes they should be voting somewhere else.  We politely ask a youth for his polling number, and his girlfriend is about to proffer hers when he looks hard at us, says “nah”, and walks off.  We conclude he’s voting Tory.  Another voter looks at the Labour red rosette – without words – and asks the teller which party he’s from.

1pm.  Handover and home for lunch.  Hear that Barnet Council in London has turned voters away because the polling station was using an incomplete electoral register.

3pm.  Third shift begins.  Still no Tory.  Discussion among the three of us about when the result will be announced.  No one believes it will be by 2am, as suggested by the Returning Officer, and opinion varies as between 3am and 5am.  A voter asks me about the Green Party candidates.  I intone, in a voice that brooks no argument, that electoral law forbids a teller from discussing the merits of candidates when in the vicinity of a polling station.  And I feel a bit of a prat, even though it’s a sensible rule.

5pm.  Handover and home.

6pm.  We go out and vote.  Do my good deed for the Green Party in the local council election.  Write a complaint on my Police and Crime Commissioner ballot form rather than vote for a collection of people I’ve never heard of, or from.  Wonder why the government thought directly elected PCCs would be more “accountable” than the police authorities they replaced.

10pm.  Arrive at the count, where I am officially a “Counting Agent” and have a pass to prove it.  Because everyone has three votes and not everyone gives all three to a single party, the counting process is protracted.  First, separate out the PCC ballot papers to be dealt with elsewhere.  Second, check the number of ballot papers is correct – and keep recounting until it is.  Third, separate out the ballot papers where all the votes are for the same party, and count them.  Fourth, subject the papers where the voter has chosen one than one party to a technique known as the “grass skirt”[1].  Fifth, identify unclear or spoiled ballot papers, and check the total number of ballot papers is still correct.

Finally, candidates and agents agree with the returning officer – the person in charge – what papers can be disregarded as spoiled or unclear.

And then, ward by ward, the result is announced, though the overall position was clear long before then.  Thanks to our appalling first past the past system, Labour got three-quarters of the seats with less than 45% of the available votes, while the Greens and UKIP got no seats despite having over 12% of the available votes between them.

4.15am.  Go home.  Go to bed.

 

NOTES

[1]  This is too complex to explain here, but those interested can watch a video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwPlhwiI418