Category Archives: Public policy

Much Bindweed in the Marsh

There might be a climate emergency needing urgent shifts to less polluting forms of transport, but getting even a small railway station built seems beyond us.

The title of this post is a play on the name of a BBC radio comedy series, Much Binding in the Marsh, which ran for 10 years after World war 2.  It depicted the chaotic life at a fictional RAF station as the staff grappled with post-war red tape. Over 70 years later, the attempts to build a small railway station at Marsh Barton, a large trading estate in south-west Exeter, are ensnarled in the 21st century version of red tape.

The need for a station at Marsh Barton was first formally identified in the Local Transport Plan 2011-26 [1], published in April 2011.  Three years later an outline business case for the development appeared [2].  The central justification was that the new station – on the main line between Exeter St Davids and Teignmouth – would improve rail links to the area as part of the Devon Metro concept, and so create easier access for people who work in Marsh Barton.  In doing so it would reduce traffic congestion in the estate.  And it would provide a rail link to the proposed large-scale housing developments in south-west Exeter.

Yet the proposed station location is far from convenient.  It was a clear failure of Brunel’s imagination not to realise that 100 years later a large trading estate would be built at Marsh Barton and that his railway would end up going past one edge of it instead of through the middle.  So it’s a 15-minute trot to the other side of the estate, and a good half hour to access the station from the new housing development to the south.  Will we get a frequent shuttle bus service connecting with trains?  Dream on.

Indeed the business case explicitly excludes any planning for bus services and cycle routes linked to the new station.  It also takes little account of the fact that Marsh Barton contains what is held to be one of Europe’s largest concentration of motor vehicle dealers, both sales and servicing. Other traffic is in the form of heavy lorries visiting the industrial units, and traders’ vans and private cars collecting bulky material from the many specialist DIY outlets. None of this can transfer to train.

That said, the main purpose of this post is not to belittle the business case.  The case is based on so much process-driven modelling accepted in consultancy and project management circles that it must have some robustness, surely?  We just have to hope the underlying assumptions are sound and that, despite Devon’s ageing population and other social and technological changes, people carry on behaving as they have in the past when similar stations are opened (because it’s on past trends that much of this modelling is based).  No, what I want to do is look at the whole development process, of which the business case is only one element.

When Brunel built his Great Western Railway out of London Paddington in the 19th century, he had a limited number of hoops to jump through.  He needed Parliamentary approval, finance (from the shareholders), a surveyor, an engineer, materials and navvies.  Admittedly, he wasn’t too hot on health & safety.  When the GWR company board green-lighted him, off he went.  The GWR received its enabling Act of Parliament in 1835 and ran its first trains from London to Maidenhead in 1838.  By 1841, trains were running through from London to Bridgwater in Somerset.

Contrast this with the steps required today to build a small railway station on an existing line.  The outline business case gives a clear summary.  Before a single sod of earth can be touched, the promoters of the scheme – in case this Devon County Council through the Local Transport Board, itself a body nesting within the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (the LEP) – need to have secured funding, the necessary permissions based on detailed design work, and appointed a contractor under public sector procurement rules.  The key players in this joint enterprise include: 2 passenger train operating companies and an unidentified number of freight operators, central government, Network Rail, 3 local authorities, 2 rail user groups, business groups, Devon CC’s own transport consultants, the Devon Metro Programme Board, elected representatives, trade unions, nearby residents or other interest groups, and the appointed contractors.  Any one of these can put a spoke in the wheel.  For example, the initial plans assumed a footbridge with a gradient of 1 in 15, but then Notwork Rail popped up to say that 1 in 20 was the maximum steepness permissible.  And, having planned for the structure to be compatible with the electrification of the line the Department for Transport recently stated that electrification will probably not happen after all (as we all know from the Secretary of State’s backsliding on government rail commitments).

The other big obstacle is funding.  Since the coalition government started to starve local authorities of funds and passed them instead to the newly created LEPs on the grounds that they were not Labour’s now-defunct regional development agencies, almost any significant public sector project that is not national or NHS relies on being able to put together a funding package from different sources.  The Marsh Barton station project was originally costed in the business case at £4.3 million, at final approval at £7.4 million, and has since risen, in large measure due to Notwork Rail moving the goalposts, to £13.7 million.  It may go higher.  To fund this, the LEP initially allocated £3.5 million and this may be topped up by underspends om other projects; the remainder is expected to come from government, Network Rail, Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 agreements with developers, and Devon County Council.  The government recently turned down an application for £3 million from its New Stations Fund.  So after 4 years of planning and negotiations, there is still no certainty that the station can be funded at all.

Does all this planning and fragmented funding really produce a better result at the end of the day?  Or, in this case, will it produce a result at all?  If Brunel had been subject to today’s regime, his railway wouldn’t even have reached Slough.

 

NOTES

[1]  See https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[2]  Accessible via  http://heartofswlep.co.uk/about-the-lep/how-we-work/local-transport-board/ltb-scheme-business-cases/ f

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Tackling congestion won’t make our streets liveable

Tackling traffic congestion is a short-term air quality issue: it should not be a driver of long-term planning policy

As one does, I was meandering through some literature on “liveable streets” and came across a 1982 book review [1] written by Alfred A Woods of the long-defunct West Midlands Metropolitan County Council.  No, I hadn’t heard of him either.

(In passing, it’s interesting to speculate whether Mrs Thatcher’s hatred of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council – which drove her in 1986 to abolish not only the GLC but all the other metropolitan county councils for good measure – put back the cause of integrated urban planning further than many imagined at the time; after all, today’s Tory government is busily recreating the something very like the metropolitan counties in the form of combined authorities and mayorally-led city regions.).

I digress.  Back to Mr Woods.  In his review he wrote:

The motor vehicle is a sort of latter-day mule: in some countries it has a greater birth-rate than that of humans, it is capable of high speeds yet is difficult to master and it can be dangerous to onlookers.  It eats space at an astonishing rate requiring pro-rata about ten times the space allocated to humans; moreover. it has heard of Parkinson’s Law and proliferates to occupy any space available.  Where large herds gather, those areas become unattractive for humans to endure and although there have been some attempts to tame the creature by, for instance, driving large cohorts in one direction only, this seems to make them angry and they gallop faster. [……]  Of course we are rather schizophrenic about the creatures; we are proud of them because we made them, they are extraordinarily useful and ownership of a fine animal makes us feel good and enables us to cut a dash in the paddock.  But if we had been dealing with mules instead of motor vehicles, we would surely have tamed them more effectively than we have: keeping them out of the best rooms (the city is a series of open-air living rooms), controlling the manner in which they could roam the other rooms or charge down our bedroom corridors.

Despite flogging his metaphorical mule almost to death, Mr Woods makes a useful and vivid observation on our historic attitudes to traffic in towns.  What is particularly striking today is that nowhere in his review does he mention the C-word – congestion.  His focus is driver behaviour and its effect on the visible and consciously experienced urban environment.  Contrast this with today’s thinking about traffic management where congestion is the centre-stage villain.  It is responsible for two particular harms: costs and pollution.  The costs of congestion are regularly highlighted, and consultancies make a good living in analysing traffic movements and the costs of delays.  For example, the Centre for Economic and Business Research, stated in a report last year [2]:

We calculate the total cumulative cost of congestion in the UK to be £307 billion from 2013 to 2030. Of this, total direct costs are £191 billion, and indirect costs equal £115 billion. By 2030, we estimate the total cost of congestion per household will be £2,057. From 2013 to 2030, the annual cost of road congestion will have risen 63%.

The report identifies three sources of these costs:

  • The opportunity cost of the time wasted due to delays through road congestion (which includes ‘planning time’ for the possibility of traffic delays)
  • The cost of the wasted fuel whilst vehicles are sat idle in traffic
  • The impact of traffic congestion on the environment, and social costs involved”

The report was commissioned by the FairFuelUK campaign, which lobbies for lower fuel prices and, according to its website, is funded by the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, though the Guardian has identified other funders [3].  Other cost-of-congestion studies are cited as justification for more road building. Back in 2006 Sir Rod Eddington’s transport study stated that eliminating congestion on the road network would be worth some £7bn-£8bn of GDP annually [4], though Eddington saw a combination of road pricing and modest infrastructure improvements as the way forward.  Having said it agreed with the Eddington analysis, the New Labour government rapidly buried it.

The second regularly cited key harm from congestion is to our health, especially through nitrogen dioxide air pollution from vehicle emissions.  The UK government’s poor record on tackling this issue is well-known:  its latest plans have been heavily criticised [5], and those were only produced after the High Court ordered the government to do so [6].

The public health emergency from emissions requires serious and early action: an estimated 40,000 people die each year in the UK from inhaling particulates and nitrogen dioxide, for which diesel engines are the principal source [7].   The government’s plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide [8] stresses technological solutions to reducing emissions with reducing congestion playing a secondary role.

Notwithstanding the impressive-sounding figures cited above, the economic costs of congestion are less precise, since the results depend entirely on the assumptions put into the modelling work and these are inevitably value-laden.  And in any case, as Mr Woods reminds us, traffic increases to fill the driving space created by new roads; and since he wrote his review ample evidence has been provided to support his contention: most recently by CPRE [9] and as far back as 1994 by SACTRA – the government’s Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment [10] – thus proving that policy-makers are inept at learning from the past.  The latter was so unwelcome to Mrs Thatcher’s road-building government that the Department of Transport sat on the report for months and, after a reluctant publication, rewrote the Committee’s terms of reference to prevent any more embarrassing reports.

Dr Steve Melia, an academic at UWE Bristol, has argued that congestion will always be with us [11].  He cites the four options open to planners for addressing the rising volume of traffic in urban areas set out in the 1963 Buchanan report [12], and examines each in the light of our understanding 50 years later.  In my summary below, which elides any nuance from his discussion, Melia says:

Buchanan/Melia option Melia commentary
1. Rearrange the road/rebuild the area to accommodate more traffic Extending capacity at one point shifts the congestion somewhere else, and allows total volume of traffic to increase. To have any impact, knocking down the town and spreading it out would be required, which is politically impossible.
2. Restrain vehicular access Can reduce traffic volumes but unlikely to improve congestion.
3. Voluntary behaviour change, ie reducing car use or changing its distribution/timing Getting people out of their cars can free up road space for other drivers to fill, so no impact on congestion.
4. Squeeze more traffic into a finite space, and accept the consequence of congestion and a degraded environment Marginal gains only as long as drivers make their own decisions on when and where to travel.

Personally, I think Melia is too dismissive of option 2.  As always, it is the detail of a given scheme that will determine success or failure.

The government’s expectation is that congestion will cease to be an air quality issue once nitrogen dioxide levels have been brought within statutory limits.  The Defra/DfT plan summary offers restricting vehicular access as a relevant measure – but almost of last resort – and warns:

However, local authorities should bear in mind such access restrictions would only be necessary for a limited period and should be lifted once legal compliance is achieved and there is no risk of legal limits being breached again [13].

Bear in mind also that as vehicles get cleaner, the case for traffic restraint on public health grounds fades away.

So, although measures to tackle congestion are needed to deal with the health emergency, we cannot rely on those same measures to deliver improvements to our mental and physical environment in the broader sense.  They will not rise to Mr Woods’ implied challenge on how to deal with rampant motor vehicles which make areas “unattractive for humans to endure”.  In the future, you could have an emissions-free environment with streams of vehicles  still belting along at 30mph on residential roads – and there are many main routes into cities and towns which are primarily residential rather than industrial or commercial.

“Liveable streets” are surely what we urban-dwellers want?  Why would we not want them?  Streets where the domination of the car – moving or parked – has ceded priority to pedestrians, cyclists and people with child buggies or mobility aids.  Streets with places to sit and talk; streets with trees and hedges; streets with spaces to play and have barbecues.  We should be able to love our streets rather than endure them.

If Dr Melia is right, and congestion will always be with us, then that is not necessarily a bad thing.  What we have now is the wrong kind of congestion: polluting, wasteful and unpleasant.  We need to find ways to move to the right sort, the sort that makes private car journeys in urban areas deeply unattractive and which in the process supports a “liveable streets” environment.

Some ideas on how this might be achieved, using Exeter (where else?) as a practical example, will be the subject of a future post.

 

NOTES:

[1]  In The Town Planning Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Apr.1982), pp. 217-219 (accessed through JSTOR).  Mr Woods was reviewing a 1980 book entitled Livable Streets by Donald Appleyard, Professor of Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

[2]  The Economic Effect of Road Investment, CEBR . February 2017. Accessible via https://www.fairfueluk.com/publications/roads.html

[3]  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2011/nov/15/fuel-duty-campaign

[4]  Quoted in House of Commons Library Research Paper 10/28 Transport Policy in 2010: a rough guide, March 2010 (page 25), downloadable from https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/RP10-28

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/26/governments-air-quality-plan-is-cynical-headline-grabbing-say-critics

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/27/air-pollution-plan-election-campaign-bomb-court-government

[7]  Every Breath We Take, Royal College of Physicians, 2016, available at https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution

[8]  UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations: An overview.  Defra and Department for Transport, July 2017.  Available at  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633269/air-quality-plan-overview.pdf

[9]  The End of the Road? Campaign to Protect Rural England, available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/roads/item/4543-the-end-of-the-road-challenging-the-road-building-consensus   The Campaign for Better Transport has a very useful page on induced traffic at http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/roads-nowhere/induced-traffic

[10]  Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic, Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment, 1994.  http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/economics/rdg/nataarchivedocs/trunkroadstraffic.pdf – Warning: slow download

[11]  Urban transport without the hot air, vol 1, Steve Melia, UIT Cambridge, 2015. See in particular pages 211-214.

[12]  Traffic in Towns, Professor Colin Buchanan, HMSO 1963.  A more accessible shorter version was published in 1964 by Penguin Books.

[13]  Para 18 of the report cited at [8].

 

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.

20170927_154453

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

 

 

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