Category Archives: Public policy

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

It’s not just the infrastructure, stupid!

Making better use of what transport services we have already will provide quicker and cheaper solutions.

Down here in Devon discussions about transport invariably end up talking about improving the resilience of transport infrastructure on the peninsula. Whether it’s dualling the A303 to provide an alternative to the M4/M5 or building another railway between Plymouth and Exeter, there is a real head of diesel fuel behind the campaign to give Cornwall and Devon better physical transport connections to the rest of the country.

The collapsed railway on the Dawlish sea-front in February 2014 has become the icon for what’s wrong with the peninsula’s rail services. The fact that Cross-Country Voyager trains still regularly break down on the sea-front because the waves chuck seawater into their diesel engines is presented as another reason for “doing something about Dawlish”. Commentators generally ignored the quicker and cheaper solution of replacing those trains with ones that can withstand a bit of sea water, such as Great Western Railway’s ageing 125s.

Every so often, a body called the Peninsula Rail Task Force pops up with yet another report aimed at persuading central government to find a lot of money to provide a new railway line across Devon. This body, which is made up of local authorities and the two Local Enterprise Partnerships (aka the Plymouth business lobby), focusses almost entirely on improving resilience through capital expenditure. Leading local politicians and MPs read from the same song book, though since all but one of the MPs are Tories their demands for more public spending are inevitably unconvincing.

So we have a campaigning mindset focussed on infrastructure. That’s not wrong but it’s not the whole story. The problems with our transport network extend well beyond the this. One of the greatest disincentives to using public transport is the lack of good local connections between rail services to or from the rest of the country and those communities without a railway station.

Much of the problem is due to the lack of evening bus services. Someone living in the South Devon town of Kingsbridge who needs to do a day’s work in London will get the first bus to Totnes station, wait over an hour and then a train to Paddington arriving at 11.24am. Several meetings later, the same person just manages to catch the 5.03pm from Paddington arriving at Totnes at 7.55pm. Sadly, the last bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge left at 7.05pm. The well-off will have no problem summoning a taxi, but not everyone is well-off. So our traveller drives from Kingsbridge to Totnes and back again, because there is no public transport option at the end of the day.

These examples are replicated all over the Westcountry, and beyond. What they show is, despite the endless rhetoric of politicians about “integrated” transport, nothing changes. There was a publicly-funded Commission on Integrated Transport which lasted from 1998 until its abolition in 2010, presumably on the grounds that it hadn’t actually integrated anything. When I mentioned the importance of better connections at a meeting where train and bus operators were present, their representatives looked at the ceiling and shook their heads.

In our system of public transport which depends on private sector operators, the needs of passengers regularly come second to the needs of the companies’ owners to make a profit. So if it’s not profitable to run a bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge in the late evening, and Devon County Council has insufficient money to subsidise one, it won’t run.

Is there a solution?   There is, and the government already has the statutory powers to achieve it.

The Railways Act 1993, which privatised the railway network, contains the relevant powers.  They just haven’t been used to their full potential.

The key point is that the Secretary of State for Transport is under a general duty “to contribute to the development of an integrated system of transport of passengers and goods” (section 4 of the Act). So far so good, but general duties need to be put into practice. Again, the Act provides the power and the rail franchising system provides the mechanism.

Almost all rail passenger services in the Westcountry are provided by Great Western Railway (GWR) under a franchise agreement. This is a legal contract between the government and the company. The revised GWR franchise agreement runs to 581 pages, plus three more substantial documents about levels of services to be provided. There are only two references to bus services in the entire franchise agreement, both relating to the conditions in which bus services may be substituted for rail. Nothing in the agreement compels GWR to coordinate its services with buses.

However the Act empowers the Secretary of State to set conditions in a franchise agreement (section 29(5)) which give effect to the general duty to develop an integrated system and, specifically, which may require the franchisee as a condition of its operating licence to enter into an agreement with other bodies to achieve the requirement to achieve integration (section 9).

So it’s all there. What is now needed is the will to make it happen. As we saw above, part of the integration problem is that the bus operators will not run late evening services on some routes. Using the franchising system places the duty to secure integration on the rail operator rather than the bus company. This is inevitable because bus services are not regulated in the same way railways are.

Before the train operating companies dismiss the idea out of hand, they might reflect on their ownership. GWR is part of First Group which runs bus services in most of Somerset, much of Cornwall, and the Plymouth, Tavistock and South Devon area. Stagecoach buses – part of Stagecoach Group which runs the London–Salisbury–Exeter rail franchise as South West Trains – cover the rest of Devon. Instead of running their bus and rail divisions as if they were on separate planets, they should look for beneficial business opportunities arising from a more integrated approach.

More challenging is engaging the other Westcountry bus operators which are not owned by train and bus conglomerates. They may see market opportunities in providing services to connect with trains, and then publicising them – something the bus industry as a whole is lamentably poor at. The train operating companies make good profits from their rail businesses. Putting a little back into supporting connecting bus services could improve their public image as well as encouraging people to make better use of their own services.

Yet at the end of the day the experience of voluntary integration in this country outside the metropolitan areas has been poor. Big companies like First Group and Stagecoach are, at bottom, about making profits for their shareholders and will not provide commercially unviable services. Local authority funding for subsidising such services has been severely cut. Central government has the tools to put this right, and should be prepared to do so.

 

 

 

 

Five steps to providing more homes without trashing the environment

Let’s start by putting aside the debate about whether we need more housing. It’s been done to death, and the overwhelming consensus is that we need more homes if the law of supply and demand is not to make housing already more unaffordable than now.

The real-world debate is about where those new homes should be built. There are broadly three options: within existing settlements, both rural and urban; extending the boundaries of those settlements; or creating new settlements. Reality means a combination of all three, but striking the balance is the difficult bit.

A key tension is how we create enough housing while preventing unnecessary damage to the natural and built environments. Can we proceed in a way which will not inflame town against country? Can we deliver development with minimum adverse impacts on the natural environment – of which we are temporary stewards – and maximum positive impacts on the built environment? Can we avoid building sprawl which changes the character of communities, often for the worse?

There is no magic wand, but we could begin with a simple toughening-up of some planning policies.

First, force house-builders to stick to their commitments on providing affordable housing. When a developer says a specific proportion of the houses on a development will be affordable, that is the figure that should be delivered. The final plans for the Sherford new community near Plymouth show a reduction from the initial 40% proposal to 15%. Affordable housing benefits local people on modest incomes.

Second, to make better use of what we already have, there should be restrictions on second homes. This will assist the housing shortage and prevent communities from being turned into ghost villages. An outright ban on owning more than one home would certainly be unenforceable and probably politically unacceptable, but some form of punitive taxation on homes not normally occupied for less than, say, 4 days a week could be devised.

Third, and continuing the theme of better use of existing buildings, the common practice of planners specifying separate zones for housing and for other non-intrusive uses should become the exception, not the norm.   Housing and retail can mix very easily. Walk along almost any shopping street outside the honeypots and look at the number of unused rooms on the floors above the shop facades. As current buildings reach their sell-by date, there is an opportunity to use high-class architectural designs to turn those streets into a vibrant mix of ground-floor retail with 3 or 4 floors of housing above them.

Fourth, stop the urban sprawl. In my home town of Exeter, the local plan provides for 12,000 new homes over the period 2006-26, mostly located on the existing city boundaries, and taking up greenfield land. More intensive housing densities within the city, a willingness to think of 5 floors rather than 3 as the norm, and a purge on persistently empty houses would not only enable the city to meet its own needs. It would also retain its compactness, which is one of Exeter’s great attractions. The same can be said of many towns around the country.  And sprawl doesn’t help our battle against climate change.

Finally, central government needs to take land use policy out of the “too difficult” tray. In particular, it needs to recognise that land is not just there to be built on.  Policy needs to understand the vital role of land in producing our food and put food production on a level playing-field with other industries when it comes to land allocation decisions. At present, agricultural land can be taken for housing developments because government inspectors enforce policy-led housing targets in local plans. In the same way, renewable energy structures on farmland have been gaining planning permission because there is a government policy to increase renewable energy generating capacity. But there is no food production target, because successive governments believe it’s best left to the global market, and so farmland has no defence against the developers.

These measures don’t provide all the solutions. But can we make a start here please?

Why can’t we talk about income tax?

We need to reframe our view of income tax as a source of community benefit, not as a raid on individual pockets.


Of all the elephants in the political arena, the idea of increasing income tax rates is one of the most immovable. The present government is driven by the idea that taxes are fundamentally bad, and that people and businesses should pay as little tax as possible. Labour is less dogmatic, but remains very nervous about any move that would increase the tax take from anyone other than the rich and institutional tax evaders.

The defenders of a low-tax regime say that people should be able to make their own decisions about how they spend their earnings. Or that high taxes will drive businesses, top-flight managers and entrepreneurs away from the UK. Or that the public sector squanders public funds on ineffective projects.

There is some truth in all of these points: if there wasn’t no one would believe them. As it is they’ve become mantras, unquestioned in too many influential circles. We have been conditioned into believing that taxation is inherently bad. So what is almost never discussed in public, let alone in Parliament, is the case for raising income tax rates.

The Government is making it clear that, if re-elected, its austerity policies will continue. In its commentary on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in December 2014 the statutorily independent Office of Budget Responsibility observed that the government was in the fifth year of 10-year programme of reducing public expenditure. It stated: Around 40 per cent of these cuts would have been delivered during this Parliament, with around 60 per cent to come during the next. The implied squeeze on local authority spending is similarly severe [1]. The Chancellor appears sanguine about this.

Cutting the state is a political choice. It sounds good to both social and economic liberals, but its consequences are frequently underestimated. The state, particularly at local level, is a collective enterprise in which we all have a stake. We pay in, and in return, a range of essential services is provided. From schools to street-cleaning, from parks to social care, from child protection to bus services [2], from waste disposal to highway maintenance, local government provides the glue that keeps society together. It provides these services at cost. In other words there are no shareholders wanting a dividend.

As a society we have become used to having public services provided for us. We really don’t want to pick up the litter ourselves, take all our waste to the central depot, fill in the potholes in our road. We can’t all afford to send the children to fee-paying schools, so the availability of a state-run service is essential.

What we’re less good is understanding that these services have to be paid for. The low-tax brigade would argue that all these services can and should be provided by the private sector, with the result that we’ll pay on an item of service basis. Of course then we’ll pay more, because these services are fragmented and need to be run at a profit for the shareholders (not to mention high executive salaries). The contention that handing over public services to private companies leads to competition which will drive down prices can no longer be taken seriously, as one glance at the energy and rail transport sectors will show.

This is not an assault on private businesses. They are essential for providing occupation and innovation and will always, I hope, be with us. The criticism is of the privatisation of services that are best run in the public or social enterprise sector. What is lost through privatisation is the key idea that public services are in effect a community insurance scheme: we don’t need all the services all of the time but they are there when we do need them. And because they are universal services, there are economies of scale – and so reduced costs – in providing them.

It’s through this prism that we should view income tax rates. Not as a tax, but as a payment for communal services that we all need at some time or other. Those services cannot be provided at no cost.

All the main political parties in England (except the Greens) believe we must continue cutting public services to reduce the annual deficit.  In December the Chancellor insisted that the UK will have a surplus of £23bn by the end of the decade provided public spending is cut in line with government plans. The trouble is, as the OBR and others have pointed out, the squeeze implied by those plans will be so severe that many public services will cease to exist in any recognisable form before then.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has developed a tool to enable each of us to play at being Chancellor: its guideline is that 1p on all rates of income tax would generate about £5.5bn in a year [3]. Adding that 1p would more than compensate for the cut of £3bn in the government’s revenue support grant to local authorities in England in 2015/16 and subsequent years. It’s not going to wipe out the deficit – expected to be over £70bn in 2015/16 – but it would lessen the severity of the short-term expenditure cuts.

No one will like an increase in income tax. But it is a progressive tax in the sense that it is directly linked to ability to pay, and so unlike VAT which hits everyone irrespective of means. The question for us all is whether we want to see filthy streets, transport subsidies cut, care homes closed, youth services decimated and the rest of it, rather than stump up a 1p tax rise.

But the politicians won’t let us answer, or even ask, that question.

Notes

[1] OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook, December 2014, paragraph 1.7 http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/December_2014_EFO-web513.pdf

[2] Yes, publicly-owned bus companies still exist, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Municipal_bus_company

[3] http://election2015.ifs.org.uk/how-would-you-balance-the-books

Policy-making in the dark


The government’s threat to cut funding to the rural community action network has graver consequences than the damage to the organisations involved.


First, some brief background for those unfamiliar with the rural policy world. Cognoscenti can skip this bit.

In 2010 the new coalition government announced it would abolish the Commission for Rural Communities, though the quango’s death throes were drawn out until 2013. Much of what the CRC did was of minimal value, but it did generate a significant evidence base which could inform ministers’ rural policy decisions. The government decided instead to rely on a new and small Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra. The lack of resources in the RCPU led to it receiving a critical review from the Commons Efra select committee in July 2013.

The RCPU presumably realised that evidence-gathering was not its strong point, which made life a bit difficult for a government and a civil service ostensibly committed to evidence-based policy making (though my own experience, and that of others, suggests that “evidence-backed” would be a better description). The RCPU entered into a funding contract with ACRE, the umbrella body for England’s rural community councils, aimed at filling the void.  Under the contract ACRE provides hard information, collected from the 38 county-based rural community councils, about the effects of government policies – or the lack of them – on rural communities. So the RCPU has been fed tailored intelligence collated and interpreted by ACRE to inform policy responses across government.

I ought at this point to declare an indirect interest. From 2011-14 I was a trustee of ACRE, elected by the RCCs in the south-west.  I was also a Defra civil servant, but that was in another life.

The Defra funding has not only supported intelligence gathering, although that is the focus of this blog. The most recent impact report shows what else is achieved by the ACRE Network with the funding: the executive summary explains all you need to know, including the fact that £2.25m of Defra investment has enabled a further £12.5m to be levered in from local and national sources, with consequent additional benefits to rural communities.

Now the bad news. As part of the endless cuts in government expenditure, Defra has threatened not to continue to provide funding to ACRE in 2015/16, the final year of the contract. This is entirely consistent with the government’s view that communities should take more responsibility for themselves, though it’s not clear how cutting funding to community development organisations will help communities do this.

ACRE has launched an e-petition with a view to getting the issue debated in Parliament or – perhaps more realistically – drawing public attention to the issue. The e-petition is carefully worded: it does not say there will be a catastrophe if the funding ceases but rather that the work of the RCCs and the network would be seriously weakened, with a knock-on effect on communities. What it doesn’t address – understandably – is the impact on government policy-making.

As part of its civil service reform programme the government is establishing a set of “What Works” evidence centres, outside the civil service, designed to review evidence of policy implementation and initiatives across six key policy themes. Unsurprisingly, rural policy does not figure directly, though one would expect a rural dimension to all of the themes, particularly Local Economic Growth. It follows that good rural intelligence will be needed to ensure that the evidence centres take account of the particular circumstances of rural communities and the changes they are undergoing. The ACRE intelligence collection programme is an obvious and proven source of such intelligence. Abolishing it can only lead to a much less informed civil service.

But perhaps evidence isn’t so important to the government after all. The foreword to the latest review of the progress in achieving civil service reform is distinctly confrontational in tone. Two statements stand out:

  • Discomfort over value for money and implementability should be handled by way of an open discussion and, if necessary, a Ministerial Direction.
  • In the event that the permanent head of a civil service organisation thinks that his/her organisation’s professional capability is being seriously eroded by current Ministerial priorities or decisions, then that Accounting Officer should seek a Ministerial Direction.

Of course this rarely used provision has always been in the small print of minister-civil service relations. Yet to give it such a degree of prominence in a public document might lead a sceptic to conclude that ministers are wedded to battles with a civil service that retains a commitment to evidence-based decisions rather than solely to political dogma or political short-term fixes.

Against that background a decision to axe the ACRE contract would be a small illustration of how, despite the fine words, ministers aren’t really interested in good government.

75,000 voters are locked out of the UK’s democratic process

Can you imagine a country in which people are not allowed to vote for the party of their choice because the ruling elites think it’s a bad idea to let them? There are indeed many examples. Oddly, the UK is one of them.

At the May 2005 general election the Buckingham constituency re-elected the sitting Conservative MP, John Bercow. In June 2009, Mr Bercow became Speaker of the House of Commons, ceased to be a Conservative, but promised his constituents that this would not impact on his ability to represent their interests to government. To be fair to him, he has continued to speak out on key local issues, including his opposition to HS2. However, unlike Carswell and Reckless, he did not consult his constituents before changing his party status.

Come the May 2010 general election, the Buckingham electors – of whom I was then one – were offered a choice of candidates: the non-party John Bercow, the UKIP leader Nigel Farage (much less well-known than now), a former Conservative MEP standing as an independent against Bercow (who came second), and a range of unknowns. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties did not put up candidates, pleading the long-standing convention that the Speaker should be re-elected unopposed.

Feeling less than thrilled at being denied the right to vote for a party that stood a chance of forming the next government, I wrote to the three party leaders in advance of the election asking them if they considered this situation satisfactory and whether they had plans for change. The Conservatives stood by the status quo. The LibDems said that the system should change, but not now. Labour didn’t reply.

John Bercow was duly re-elected. After the election, I wrote to him setting out my concerns about the exclusion of 75,000 electors from the democratic process. I was not alone, and Bercow was clearly sensitive to the strength of feeling on the issue. He asked the Commons Procedures Committee – made up of MPs – to review the question of whether there should be a “Speaker’s Seat” in a general election – meaning that once a MP is elected as Speaker there should be a by-election to enable a new party-aligned MP to be elected by the constituency.

The Procedures Committee looked at the issue as part of a wider enquiry. Their self-serving conclusion is worth stating in full:

“In the context of this report, we have not conducted a full inquiry into the proposal for a special Speaker’s seat, which would in any case require primary legislation. From our review of the arguments and the history of the idea, we are firmly persuaded that the advantages of the change are outweighed by the disadvantages. There are great benefits to the House and to the Speaker in the Speaker’s retaining responsibility for a normal constituency and being thereby fully aware of the issues currently causing concern to constituents. The access that the Speaker, like Ministers who are also unable to speak out in debates, gains to the Government in order to raise matters relating to his or her constituents compensates in no small measure for the lack of a constituency voice on the floor of the House. We are also concerned that the proposal would remove the important democratic check on the re-appointment of a Speaker by either the public or the House and would create a new separate, distinctive and privileged category of Member to the detriment of the House. Finally, we recognise that the existence of a Speaker’s seat could lead to worse consequences for a returning Speaker, if not re-elected by the House, than at present since there could be no possibility of a return to the backbenches in such circumstances and the traditional honour of a seat in the Lords could cease to be available in the foreseeable future.” [1]

All the Committee’s arguments centre on the benefits to Parliament of the present arrangement and on the adverse consequences to the Speaker of changing it. There is not a flicker of recognition of the effective disenfranchisement of the Speaker’s constituents and the affront that this is to the democratic process. So much for the House of Commons as the voice of the people.

In May 2015, the electors of Buckingham will yet again be denied a vote for a government of their choice. The good news is that the Green Party intends to field a candidate in Buckingham, which offers a positive alternative for voters fed up with the shenanigans of the mainstream parties.

If you think current practice is wrong, write to your own MP now. Seek a commitment that s/he will if re-elected campaign in Parliament for reform. And do the same to the other prospective candidates. The blight will one day move on from Buckingham, and it could be your constituency’s turn next

Notes:

1  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmproced/1573/157305.htm#a12

How to fix a consultation

One of Exeter’s less attractive pieces of public realm is the bus and coach station. Draughty, uncomfortable, made of brutalist concrete, and with half the site used exclusively as an overnight bus park, proposals for its redevelopment have been round for years.

Now, however, action is in prospect. The site developers – The Crown Estate and TIAA Henderson Real Estate – recently staged a small exhibition of their plans to gauge public opinion. There was no model, only an outline plan showing areas marked for retail, restaurants, leisure and a cinema, plus a new more compact bus station and a small greened public open space. The development is being presented as an extension of the existing Princesshay shopping centre.

Armed with the public’s views, the developers have said they intend to submit an application for outline planning permission before Christmas. Whether what the developers have collected really represents the public’s views is a moot point. Visitors to the exhibition were asked to complete a form which asked them to express a view on five propositions, by ticking the box for each one to state whether they strongly agreed, agreed, didn’t know, disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Let’s look at the five propositions (in italics), with my comments on each.

1. I think the extension of Princesshay and the proposed leisure facilities are a good thing for the city. No opportunity to support the new leisure facilities – which will be a swimming pool – without supporting the rest of it.
2. I think the bus and coach station is in need of redevelopment to provide a new gateway to Exeter. A no-brainer, barely worth asking.
3. New and accessible public spaces in the city centre will benefit visitors and residents alike. Well, yes, they probably will, but the statement is not related to the development under discussion.
4. I would welcome an increased variety of places to eat and drink and more choice in city centre leisure activities. Again, no opportunity to disaggregate the proposition. Many people in Exeter would like to see a new city centre theatre on the site, but that’s not on offer and the questionnaire doesn’t invite comment on alternatives.
5. I think the city as a whole will benefit from this new proposed development. How can a layman form an informed opinion on this? We don’t know what the new shops and restaurants will be: will they be more chains, or will they be at affordable rents for small businesses? LOL.

The questionnaire aims to encourage respondents to say Yes to the goodies, without any recognition that there could be other issues. For example, there is no invitation to comment on the changes to traffic arrangements arising from the development even though this will have a major (if beneficial) impact on current travel patterns.

Just contrast this slanted approach to consultation with an equally recent major survey from Exeter City Council seeking information to inform its decisions on next year’s reduced budget. To take public parks as an example, the survey asks respondents how often they visit parks, what time of day (with different questions for winter and summer), what they use the parks for, and how far they’d be willing to travel to a park. The survey concludes by asking respondents to assign a priority from 1 to 5 to a range of services: cutting grass; maintaining hedges; pruning & replacing trees; planting & maintaining flower beds; maintaining buildings; maintaining features eg. sculptures, paths, gates, walls & memorials. These are open questions, with no nudging respondents in a particular direction. Which means the results will be worth something.

That’s real consultation.

A better way to cut government costs

A supporting document to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement includes the ritual undertaking to outsource more services to the private sector, despite the absence of hard evidence that such measures save money or improve service quality. But if George Osborne really does want to shrink the costs of the state, he needs to be tough on the causes of those costs.

The state does not grow, or even maintain itself, on its own.  Despite the decades-old practice of pointing the finger at self-serving bureaucrats being the cause of public sector aggrandisement – a charge that certainly used to have some truth – the real cause lies elsewhere. It is with those who at the end of the day provide legitimacy for the bureaucrats’ activity, in other words, Ministers.

The current government has just over 100 ministers with departmental responsibilities (ie not counting the Whips). Of these, 22 are Cabinet Ministers and a further 11 have “also attend Cabinet”. That leaves well over 60 junior ministers, almost all of whom are eyeing a place in the Cabinet.

Promotion up the ministerial ladder depends on many factors; bur key among them is being noticed. Junior ministers tend to get noticed by launching new initiatives which have some news value, however transient. Such initiatives can take many forms, including publicity campaigns, tiny pots of cash to bid for, making minor changes to the law or to a quango’s remit, launching a performance survey, publishing a new good practice guide, and so on.

However trivial, each initiative adds to the cost and scope of government. Officials need to work out the detail, consult inside (and perhaps outside) government, steer any necessary legislation if necessary, publicise and launch it, and then maintain whatever new process is the by-product.  And of course local government may be told to deliver it.

This practice – from which Cabinet Ministers themselves are not exempt – has led to the state getting involved in whole rafts of activity that it need not do. Why does the Foreign Office compile and publish a quarterly report on the Hong Kong economy? Why does government run a business support helpline? Why does the Department for Education publish a “step by step guide” on setting up a childminder agency, given that the information is available on the Ofsted website? Why does Defra produce annual reports on agricultural wages?

Ministers could put a stop to these and much more. But doing so reduces the opportunities for announcements and self-promotion. The Chancellor has his work cut out.

The Church of England needs to stand back from civil society

For the first time ever, I put on a uniform and took part in a Remembrance Day parade today. This was not on account of a sudden urge to commemorate the 1914 centenary. The motive was more base: word is that next year I’ll be the one laying the wreath on behalf of the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, so I thought I’d better find out how it’s done.

Being in the parade is a very different experience from that of a spectator. Even the civil organisations try and look disciplined as they march through the town and stand in the square. Embarrassingly we non-combatants were applauded by the spectators in the same way they applauded the ex-servicemen; but it would be equally awkward for the spectators to switch the applause on and off.

Not that I’m a devotee of these occasions, preferring the BBC edited highlights of the Whitehall ceremony. Indeed the last time I was physically present at one was in the mid-1980s at City Hall in Belfast. Then my function was to be handed a wreath by a government official and to hand it in turn to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that he could lay it. The invariable Belfast cold was then dissipated by a retreat to the Lord Mayor’s parlour for a few drams.

That’s a digression. The only drams going at Exmouth were the ones you bought yourself in the pub afterwards, and since I was driving back home, that was a no-no.

Back to the parade, and the ceremony at the war memorial. Exmouth is only a couple of miles from the Royal Marine training centre at Lympstone Camp, so the town has a close relationship with the Marines. This was evident in the number of former Marines in the parade, and it’s difficult not to be moved by the sight of these men standing to attention and imagining what bravery they must have shown in battle. Because Remembrance ought to be about those who survived as well as those who perished.

And that’s where the traditional Royal British Legion ceremony format starts to look dated. If the survivors, not to mention the rest of the parade and the spectators, are at all representative of the population then less than 60% are nominally Christian – and I emphasise nominally – and over 65% never attend a church service . Yet what happens half way through the proceedings? Up pops a Church of England clergyman to force us to sing dreary hymns and pray to a god many of us don’t believe in.

This is of course the default format.   But why should the agnostics, atheists and those of non-christian faiths suddenly be shut out of Remembrance? It’s our country as well, and those who fought for it are entitled to be respected and remembered at communal assemblies by us, as well as by the Anglican minority.

The National Secular Society has called on the government to end Anglican dominance of Remembrance ceremonies. Good luck to them, but until the Church of England is disestablished, I’m not holding my breath.

Is rural policy a con trick?

Last week I listened to the writer Michael Morpurgo speak to a packed hall in Devon. His aim was not to talk about “War Horse”, nor to make crowd-pleasing attacks on the industrial-scale wind turbines now disfiguring the landscapes in our county. Instead, he set out his interpretation of what rural life really is and explained why the charity Farms for City Children – which he set up with his wife – is important. In doing so he made me revisit my own conception of rurality.

For those who want to know what Morpurgo said, the estimable Martin Hesp of the Western Morning News wrote it up. But the key point for me – not emphasised in the article – was Morpurgo’s insistence on young people experiencing the true nature of rural life at first hand by taking part in the work of a farm, getting up at five in the morning for a 14-hour day, feeding livestock, harvesting crops, and so on.

His central thesis was that a true rural community has a direct connection to the land because most of its members make their livings from it. Hence the centrality of farming to rural life. He argued that people are best capable of absorbing the nature of working on the land if they participate in the real thing when young. And it has to be the real thing: patting a sheep at a county show is nowhere near the mark. This thesis about the nature of a rural community can be disputed, but it deserves consideration.

It is beyond argument that the proportion of people living in rural areas who are engaged in farming has declined in recent decades. Government policymakers – of whom I was once one – have therefore developed the construct of a rural community in which farming plays a marginal role. There is much talk and even analysis of the disconnect between farmers and their local communities. That disconnect exists, but it exists not just between farming and rural communities but between farming and society as a whole.

This prompts the thought: if farming, or living off the land, is the true essence of rurality (as I think Michael Morpurgo is arguing) and if farming is disconnected from communities both urban and rural, is there any meaning in the definitions of “rural” community as espoused by policymakers and their analysts? Are not urban and rural communities simply variations of a single entity – the community disconnected from the land?

The “rural policy industry” makes great play of the special nature of rural communities. It’s true that small and remote rural communities have population numbers and spatial characteristics that differentiate them from urban areas. But is what goes on in those communities all that different? People live in their homes, watch television, use computers, take holidays, walk dogs, travel to work, work from home, shop at supermarkets. There are clear differences within each of these exemplar activities – type of TV programmes watched, holiday destination – but does the evidence exist to show that these differences depend on whether people live in rural or urban settings? The Carnegie UK Trust’s Commission on Rural Development adopted a framework to describe the assets available to rural communities: financial, built, social, human, natural, cultural, political. With the partial exception of “natural” all these categories apply equally well to urban areas.

Much play is made of the strength of community cohesion in rural areas. Again, there are plentiful examples to support this, although much of this cohesion has traditionally relied on so-called incomers setting up community associations, getting funds for village halls, arranging new communal activities and so on. Is this really different from urban areas? The part of central Exeter where I live has a strong community association, operating from an old hut in the middle of a park, raising funds to replace it with a modern structure, arranging activities, and so on. Not everywhere in urban areas is so endowed, but those differences are not based on a rural/urban divide.

Access to services – or lack of it – is also a commonly claimed feature of rural distinctiveness. Yes, of course, it can take longer to get the supermarket, the GP surgery, the FE college. But this is not a problem unique to rural areas. Driving – or taking a bus – out of a central urban area to the supermarkets built in the urban/rural fringes can be just a time-consuming and a lot more harrowing. Living for 17 years in a Buckinghamshire village I found it a lot easier to get a non-urgent appointment with a GP than I do in urban Exeter. It’s not surprising that Rural Community Councils, for so long the main source of community development support in rural areas, are now finding a market for their services in urban areas.

So why do we have “rural policy”? At government level it entered its heyday in 2001 when a government department with the word “rural” in its title – Defra – was created out of the ashes of the Ministry of Agriculture, by then in terminal decline politically because of foot-and-mouth. A senior minister was assigned to focus solely on the rural affairs portfolio, against a background of seething but opportunistic discontent articulated through Countryside Alliance. To demonstrate the importance of the new rural policy (and so shoot itself in the foot), Defra’s Rural Strategy 2004 stated that one-fifth of England’s population lived in rural areas and that the make-up of rural and urban economies was converging. The same document committed the government to setting up what became the Commission for Rural Communities which spent its short life banging on that rural people were victims deprived of services by urban-driven policies and for which the only remedy was to spend more public money.

If Michael Morpurgo’s idea of a rural community is right – and I think, broadly, that it is – rural policy as we know it is predicated on a set of distinctions that either do not exist or are not important. What really distinguishes rural from urban is the land – to look at, to walk through, and to make use of its natural resources for food, water, energy, minerals. The socio-economic construct of public sector rural policy risks burying what is unique about rurality under a mound of prescriptions that could apply anywhere.