Tag Archives: Communities

Local austerity – how the environment and the people lose out

Like other local authorities across England, Devon County Council is having to make cuts to services in the name of the god Austerity. The Council’s Tough Choices consultation invites the public to comment on where the cuts should fall. Does it really?

One consultation in progress is the public transport budget, where Devon says it needs to make savings of £1.76m out of a budget of £5.77m, or nearly one-third of the total [1]. To achieve this, bus services across the county will be reduced, following a withdrawal of subsidies to the bus operators. Councillors decided to go out to consultation on the proposal, even though they recognised the environmental and social downsides set out in the officer report [2]. These are:

  • reducing the scope of bus services as an alternative mode of travel to the car
  • a consequent likely increase in traffic
  • increased vehicle emissions
  • increased greenhouse gas and other emissions
  • reduced public transport network resilient to future effects of climate change
  • reduced sustainability of communities served by council funded bus routes that will have a reduced level of service in the future
  • reducing the ability of people without a car to travel to work
  • a negative impact on knowledge and skills, employment levels, and local businesses

It gives more than pause for thought that any public body is prepared to implement policies with these results.

Meanwhile, the Devon highways budget is also under scrutiny. The budget for maintenance alone is currently a hefty £63.8m [3]. The saving the County Council intends to make here is £3.4m, or 5%. The goal is to “find different, more cost-effective ways of doing things and that non-essential work is stopped so that we can maintain a safe and effective highway network while helping to support economic growth”[4]. The proposed reductions put forward for consultation, and which look likely to be implemented are:

  1. Reduction of gritting and snow-clearing flee
  2. Change of criteria for gritting and snow-clearing routes
  3. Stop maintaining grit bins
  4. Closure of picnic sites
  5. Stopping grass cutting (except for visibility areas)
  6. Stopping weed treatment
  7. Remodelling of the parish lengthsmen service
  8. Reduction in Neighbourhood Highway Team staffing

The impact assessment of these cuts acknowledges they are expected to make life worse for some people, particularly in rural areas [5]. However they do not have the long-term environmental impacts envisaged for the public transport cuts.

The extent of Devon County Council’s commitment to social and environmental improvement is revealed in other savings measures. A cheap cut is the proposed £0.1m saving from reducing school crossing patrols, which will lead to increased car use as parents drive their children to school and, in the words of the officer report, “Increases in motorised travel will have the double effect of reducing daily activity levels and increasing collision risks for those children who continue to travel on foot.” [6].   UPDATE 14 February:  Devon County Council’s Cabinet decided yesterday not to proceed with the school crossing patrol savings.

Apart from the social and environmental vandalism, what is striking about all these measures is that they are easy to implement.  By contrast, the main highways budget is spent through a long-running contract with a private company, South West Highways, recently extended to 2017.  As is so often the case, the relationship between the commissioner and the contractor gets very close. In this case, the Council and SWH have set up a “Virtual Joint Venture” [7].  Council and SWH staff are co-located at County Hall and in the local delivery units, which gives SWH easy access to the driving seat. Under the current contract, SWH receives a fee of 2% of turnover.

Dismantling any of this would be considerably more difficult than cutting a subsidy or sacking a few lollipop ladies. And of course reducing highways spending in a roads-dependent county like Devon would have the economic growth lobby up in arms. So should we be surprised that the axe is falling on the easy targets rather than on the substantial contracted highways budget, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences?

It’s unlikely that Devon County Council is the only local authority making the same judgement calls.  But that doesn’t mean they are good ones.  The real villain, of course, is Austerity.

Notes:

[1] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_sc152.html

[2] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_document.htm?cmadoc=minutes_exc_20150114.html, minute 280

[3] https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/maintaining-roads/

[4] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/background/background-information

[5] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/files/2014/10/Highways-budget-impact-assessment-2015-to-16.pdf

[6] http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_pte152.html

[7] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_hcw141.html

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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.

Atonement: why the baby boomers should vote Green

Exeter, January 2015

It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).

The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.

A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.

But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.

It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:

  • A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance.  This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
  • A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
  • A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors.  No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
  • A  banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry [1].
  • Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
  • Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business [2].
  • A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
  • A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
  • A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
  • A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England [3].
  • A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
  • Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
  • The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….

I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.

We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.

Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.

It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?

The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.

Notes:

[1] See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/

[2] See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation

The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk

[3] Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf

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.

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.