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.

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More Hovis than Bovis

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

A basic income should be a basic instinct

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

BIEN defines a basic income as having 5 characteristics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

 

 

Devolution doesn’t always mean taking back control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

A four and a half pound note?

Exeter leads the way in unconventional money.

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

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

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

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

450 note

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

presentation

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

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

 

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

History speaks

For the first 7 days in July Exeter’s Northernhay Gardens hosted a unique and very moving memorial to the 19,240 allied soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 100 years before.

The project was conceived by Rob Heard, a Somerset artist, and East Devon-based folk singer Steve Knightley.  A website – http://www.thesomme19240.co.uk/ – includes videos and other material about the memorial which enhance understanding.

20160707_161317

The pictures here don’t do it justice.  Each of the tiny shrouds, one for each soldier, was hand-stitched by Rob Heard over a period of three years.  Some 50,000 people – equivalent to nearly half the city’s population – visited the memorial.

20160707_160859

World War One was a travesty of human endeavour.  Fought because governments and dynasties wanted territory, power and trade, and fuelled by nationalism, its principal legacy was the deaths of millions of “ordinary” people.  The flawed post-war settlement laid the ground for the rise of the Nazis and the second world war.  What became the European Union was created to prevent Europe ever going to war within itself again.

It’s a pity the EU referendum didn’t come after the Somme commemorations, rather than before them.  Had it done so, perhaps fewer people would have been prepared to throw away the structure, however imperfect, that has given us 60 years of peace and co-operation.

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.