How the English Devolution Deals were done – policy making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage

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Successfully managing the transition between ‘back stage’ negotiations and ‘front stage’ decision making is essential for the future success of English devolution. That is the conclusion of the Political Studies Association’s Research Commission I was involved in to examine the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities. It is also the focus of an article I co-authored on ‘front and back stage decision making’ just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.

The case of English Devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage policy-making. Front stage, public officials are observable and accountable as office holders in elected bodies and are constrained by established bureaucratic rules, codes of conduct and public scrutiny. Back stage describes the world of complex decision making where public officials are hidden from public scrutiny and can engage in negotiations less constrained by formal rules

Research findings reveal that the devolution deal process is purposefully low on guidance and has involved a small number of key actors from central and local government negotiating the deals largely behind closed doors. This process has been criticised by some as being secretive and lacking transparency and legitimacy. From this perspective, high levels of informal working can be viewed as the latest chapter in the power-hoarding instincts of the British political tradition. By using informal means to shape local aspirations behind closed doors, the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ is operationalised in more subtle ways.

Nonetheless, the findings in our article are more nuanced than this account describes. Evidence also indicated a genuine desire on the part of critical actors involved in the process to drive forward devolution. One local government respondents said ‘it created momentum and progress in a policy area that had limped along for years’. Informality had created an innovative space to explore policy options and to generate trust between central and local actors. Back stage negotiations were seen as a route to achieving the transfer of power to the local level. While there were differences of opinion on the details of the negotiations, the majority of respondents from central and local government viewed the process positively. On the whole it was seen as far less adversarial than in the past.

But, momentum and progress was made at the cost of inclusivity and buy in from a broader stakeholders and the public. Deals were offered to areas on a take it or leave it basis and some areas chose to leave it as deals have collapsed in parts of England. Our research shows that the trust generated back stage between core insiders did not always percolate to the formal front stage. The challenge for policy makers moving forward is to strike the right balance between the flexibility afforded by back stage informality and demands for greater front stage democratic accountability.

For example, a lack of public awareness and opportunities for consultation have undermined an effective transition between back and front stage decision making. Public information and consultation at critical stages in the process might alleviate this risk. Second, the move towards more transactional and negotiated deal making clearly advantaged some areas over others. Those with a history of partnership working and established high trust relationships with central government were best able to champion local interests. Third, while some areas of the negotiation might best remain back stage, the blanket ‘shut down’ in local dialogue undermined the potential for sharing best practice and policy innovation. Allowing some elements of the bids to be discussed more openly would permit a ‘softer’ transition between back and front stage.

In the context of Brexit and a public mood of mistrust and apathy towards politics and politicians it is even more important than ever before to get the balance right. A policy agenda that is supposed to be about empowering local areas needs to be seen to be conducted in a democratic way.

This blog post was written with Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol) and Mark Sandford (House of Commons Library) from our recently published article. A version of this blog post has also appeared on the PSA Blog.

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A One City Plan for Bristol

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Mayor Marvin Rees introduced the idea of a “One City Plan” for Bristol at his inauguration speech back in May 2016.  He talked about the need for Bristol to have a big vision, looking to the future, rather than just getting caught up in immediate issues and projects. His focus was on developing a vision that addressed the big issues collaboratively, as a collective endeavour:

  • ensuring Bristol doesn’t have any areas in the top 10 of the most deprived areas in the country;
  • breaking the link between economic background and educational attainment and health inequalities; and
  • doing development in a way that reduces inequality.

So why does Bristol need such a “Plan”? What’s wrong with all the ones we’ve got? The idea of a ‘One City Plan’ as suggested by the Mayor, is that we produce a plan for the whole city, not just a land use plan or a city council plan, but a plan that brings people, institutions, business and the council together in common interest, that covers all the big issues and looks further ahead to the kind of Bristol we want in the future. So this time we have to do it differently, make it a plan people can sign up to, that all the key agencies and businesses in the city have a stake in, and that residents are involved in creating.

The Plan could be an opportunity to set out how we would like to see Bristol in the future. Thinking far enough ahead enables us to be bold and visionary as well as practical, ambitious as well as realistic. It could be where we get that real chance to address the ‘big issues’ that we shy away from in other strategies and plans, or where we finally manage to link things together well enough to generate positive change.

Many US cities have big plans and visions that seek to address poverty and inequality, taking these as the starting point for change, but looking further into the future than most of our plans do. For example, the Philadelphia Plan – Shared Prosperity Philadelphia: Our Plan to Fight Poverty 2013, or the Toronto Poverty Strategy –  TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy  and the New York City Plan – OneNYC Plan.

Other cities, such as Chicago have a long history of visionary plans, bringing public and private sectors together to set out their vision for the future, celebrated recently in the centennial programme, 100 years after Burnham’s first Plan of Chicago (1909). The Plan was about thinking big, as Burnham aptly puts it:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

All of these Plans focus on collective impact, common agendas, shared measurement systems and continuous communication – all themes that are important to city development and are needed to make change happen, as the TO Prosperity Strategy points out: “why expect different results if we continue doing things the same way?” That’s exactly the point, for too long we’ve done things the same way and expected change, doing things differently may just provide the change we want. That’s how I see the potential of the One City Plan.

The idea of a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city is a bold idea that has the potential to really make a difference to the key challenges we face as a city. It’s where the Mayor’s city office can bring people and organisations together to work collaboratively to set out a long term, simple but ambitious vision, with measurable and achievable short, medium and long term objectives and targets. It needs to be about addressing the root causes of problems rather than just the symptoms, about providing sustainable solutions and not ducking the difficult issues as we so often do.

In an era where local government and other public services are being decimated by unnecessary cuts it’s ever more important to work collaboratively, to combine efforts and resources to address the challenges we face. The One City Plan could be an opportunity to do just that. I’ll be interested to see how this idea develops in Bristol.

Who influences what and how? A study of agenda setting and policy prioritisation during the Bristol Mayoral Election.

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I thought it was about time I wrote another blog, and this time it’s a quick summary of what my PhD research is all about. I’ve written blogs before about my PhD Journey, but have shied away from too much detail on what my research actually covers. So time to give it a go, in a few hundred words, explaining the theoretical framework and the questions I am attempting to address!

My PhD research is about housing policy, agenda setting and how policy priorities are defined at election time. The impetus for this study comes from an interest in why some issues are rarely discussed and why some issues grab policy makers attention whilst others do not. It stems from a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections and new models of local governance have on framing policy agendas. It also comes from an interest in agenda setting theory, particularly Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF), and how that can be applied at a local level in the UK.

Kingdon’s MSF has traditionally been used to explore agenda setting at a national level, initially in the US, and more recently across a range of countries. Most of the research has been qualitative, using interviewing and documentary evidence as the main form of data collection. Very little research has been carried out at a local level in the UK and none of that has specifically looked at agenda setting as it happens during an election period or within the new model of local governance where there is a directly elected mayor.

Using Kingdon’s MSF as a starting point enables my research to consider the relevance of the framework to agenda setting activity during a local election for a directly elected mayor in Bristol. My research is based on a live study of that activity as it took place, pre and post election. It explores the relevance of the idea of ‘windows of opportunity’ and the role of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ throughout this process, highlighting where the MSF provides a useful framework for understanding as well as where the gaps might be. It is not, however, a study that seeks to test a theory or hypothesis. Rather, it seeks to use the Framework to help understand what is happening and to construct a story of events as it is seen by the people at the centre of the action. The approach adopted seeks to use the idea of constructing and interpreting actors own constructions of what they are up to through an analysis of their beliefs and everyday practices. It focuses on a local case study of Bristol using a live ‘ethnographic’ approach to examine how, if and why housing policy is prioritised and in whose interest. It does this through a detailed exploration of the approach, beliefs, reactions and perceptions of local political decision makers and the individuals, groups and networks trying to influence them.

My research seeks to understand the way in which different actors perceive and make sense of the world and aims to understand how individual actors influence a specific policy agenda during an election. The intention is not to generalise about the findings in empirical terms but to use the case study to provide input to the theoretical development of policy agenda setting and policy prioritisation during elections.

My research aims to provide an insight into the world of policy prioritisation during the Bristol Mayoral election in May 2016. It uses Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework (MSF) as a starting point for discussion on agenda setting before, during and immediately after the election to identify who influences what and how. The story that emerges details the influencers, their tactics, what works and what doesn’t, and at the end of it all, after the election, what makes it onto the policy agenda of the new mayor. The story is about a local policy prioritisation process, at a moment in time, where action and change is prompted by the Mayoral election.

The story of how things get onto the agenda and into political manifestos at election time is not a simple story. It is built around a myriad of different influences that are formal and informal, covert and overt, direct and indirect. It is difficult to piece these together in a timeline or coherent and logical manner, as the process is anything but logical. It seems to be an ad hoc process involving different people and organisations at different times and one that in the end appears to come down to personalities and individual preferences and beliefs, as much as it does evidence, identified need and viability.

The justification for the research is constructed around three basic premises. Firstly, that there is currently a national housing crisis, an issue accepted and acknowledged by many, with constant, ad hoc policy change occurring at national, sub national and local level. Nationally the talk is frequently focused on the supply of housing, with different political parties competing to set the highest target for new build. The wider approach to housing policy varies from supporting people to buy their own home and reducing the unnecessary restrictions of the planning system, to encouraging landowners and property developers to release more land for housing and supporting buy-to-let landlords. The ability to approach the problem comprehensively seems to get lost in a myriad of politics, ‘big ideas’ and short-term thinking. In Bristol the crisis is played out in terms of both the overall supply and affordability of housing. Outside of London and the South East, Bristol and the West of England is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK.

The second basic premise is that Bristol provides an interesting case study for research. It was the only city to vote yes to having a directly elected mayor, with an Independent Mayor (George Ferguson) elected in November 2012. The local circumstances that led to this vote were commonly quoted as being about poor and unstable leadership, constant changes of leadership and lack of visibility in terms of leadership. There has also been considerable recent debate about devolution and the role of city regions, with Bristol featuring as one of the areas that has been given increased powers and resources from central government in exchange for adopting a combined authority and metro-mayor. My research focuses on the Mayoral Election in 2016, where the first re-election of a directly elected mayor will take place alongside a full council election (for the first time in nearly 20 years). This was therefore quite a significant local election, coming just a year after the general election, and potentially a period of significant change for the city.

Thirdly, an understanding of how issues get onto, and move up and down, the policy agenda during a period of political change at a local level is an area of research that has not received particularly extensive attention over the years. The focus of much agenda setting research is either carried out at a national level or is historically focused, looking back at how a decision was taken or a policy change generated over a longer time period. My research looks at local policy prioritisation as it happened, at a moment in time and seeks to understand why it is happening, who or what is influencing the process and how those under influence respond and react. It focuses on an election period where there is likely to be a concentration of political activity, over a short period of time, when influence, engagement and responsiveness are likely to be greater than at most other times.

The two main questions this research seeks to address are as follows:

  1. How do issues get onto the policy agenda during an election campaign?
  • Who is responsible for putting issues on the policy and political agenda during an election?
  • What keeps those issues there or raises them up/down that agenda?
  1. How do the political candidates respond and react to different influences before, during and after an election campaign?
  • Who is trying to influence the candidates during the election process?
  • What tactics do different local actors use to get attention?
  • Who do the candidates listen to and why?

I’ll return to write another post soon about some of the findings, that begin to put some detailed responses to the questions outlined above.

Will Self on the end of champagne socialism

The Policy and Politics Annual Lecture this year was delivered by Will Self. The theme of the lecture was ‘the end of champagne socialism’ and was presented as a mixture of personal reflections, concerns and challenges, all seeking to highlight the mess that Will believes politics has seemingly descended into right now.

The lecture was at times depressing, confusing and uncomfortable, whilst at the same time managing to be amusing, engaging and thought provoking. Will has a style of delivery that captures the imagination whilst challenging the mind, often leaving the audience unsure and uncertain about their own thoughts, but also in no doubt about the central message he is trying to convey. That message was about how things have changed, about how there’s been a shift in the way people view politics and politicians, and about how we are now seeing change for change’s sake without any real concept of the consequences.

Will described 2016 as a momentous year in Britain and the world, where a significant proportion of the electorate woke up to the fact that no one knows what is going on, even our leaders don’t know what is going on, and for once enough people woke up to this fact and voted for change. The common theme of 2016 seemed to be that people just wanted things to change. They didn’t know what would happen as a result of that change, but they wanted change, a dangerous attitude to take to political events according to Will. In his words, what we are now seeing is ‘the rise of the idiots and the government of the stupid’.

He then went on to explain this desire for change as a break from the usual left-right dichotomy, exemplified by Brexit where the usual left versus right arguments couldn’t be applied. There were pro leave and remain campaigners on both sides of the political divide, the politics-as-usual approach no longer applied to the debate as the dualism deeply ingrained in British politics since the 1970s seemed to be unraveling.

On Corbyn, Will was conflicted. Whilst sharing many of the same beliefs as Corbyn he described how for some reason he was unable to feel pleased about his election as leader of the Labour Party. He went on to explain this using a series of examples about how Corbyn had failed to stick to his principles and wasn’t saying many of the things he should have on becoming leader. He appeared to feel let down by the failure of the new leadership to display honesty about what being a socialist party really means, about what a redistributive party would actually do, what they would change and what the impact of this would be. The disillusionment he clearly feels was apparent to all as he described the endless dilemma for politicians needing to ‘square the circle’ to retain votes meaning they generally lack any real ability to be honest about what they are trying to achieve.

He launched a scathing attack on the Labour Party and the British Left, who for over 40 years have sat back and done little whilst income disparities have grown consistently across the UK. He described them as sitting in their own bubble failing to acknowledge the changes that are needed. He was pretty damning about Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, about their role in changing the very foundations of the Labour Party during what he calls the Blair Witch Project, the New Labour movement, that moved Labour away from its traditional support whilst at the same time re-creating a new breed of champagne socialists. This he describes as unsustainable, and a nonsense that will never work based as it is on the wealthy middle class socialists’ idea that everyone should be raised to the same level and that redistribution will mean personal betterment and improvement, rather than a reduction in their own personal wealth. He pointed out that there was little evidence of the kind of large-scale voluntarism that would be needed to bring about a socialist society. For example, who among the audience would be willing to curtail their annual spending to live within median average income levels, redistributing any surplus to others earning less than us?

Will seemed to reflect the experience of many in the audience when he challenged us about our own feelings, when he described how those on the left are currently unhappy with things, but that we had done little to actually change anything over the last 20 years as income disparities have increased. As he put it, we knew the poor were getting poorer, we knew inclusiveness was largely cosmetic but we didn’t do much about it and now we are really upset, but still don’t do much about it.

He went on to explain the impact of this on young people and how we need to speak to young people about the state of the world today. He explained that we should think long and hard about what we say to the younger generation and made the point that we live in a time of democratic crisis, where older people have capital and younger people don’t’. He then asked the question about how this affects our politics when our homes make more money in a year than we do and how do we square that circle with young people.

Will’s final comments focused on the hollowness of political rhetoric and how collective action can no longer work as there is no socialist dawn waiting for us and no wheel to put our shoulder against. His description of a new socialism based not on collective action but on autonomy and individualism is a difficult one to grasp. It relies on individuals making changes – for example giving directly to the homeless, picking up litter in our communities – and taking action in an arena where there is more quietism, compassion and thought. In his words, we don’t need to organize to help people, we need to show more compassion and just do something.

This blogpost appeared originally on the Policy & Politics Blog

The living standards challenge facing the Metro Mayor

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There was an event in Bristol recently to discuss a newly published report by the Resolution Foundation – “A Western Union: living standards and devolution in the West of England“. This report discusses the living standards challenge facing the soon to be elected West of England Metro Mayor. It’s a report that sets out the statistics demonstrating the gaps between pay and productivity, wages and house prices/rents and geographically between areas of South Bristol and Bath compared to the rest of the city region. It also highlights how low earners and single parents have faired the worst since the recession. It sets out very clearly what we already know, and have know for some time, that the West of England is a relatively prosperous city region. We faired pretty well during the recession and our recovery since has been rapid, but we face particular challenges some borne out of that success and some more entrenched in the very nature of our city region.

Ask anyone what the issues are for the West of England and housing will likely be pretty close to the top of their list (alongside transport). The challenge here is huge compared to other city regions, house prices are at least 10 times higher than the typical salary, there’s a lower proportion of people living in social rented accommodation and an increasing number reliant on private renting. Rents in the West of England are now 38% higher than in other city regions, making up 41% of the typical gross monthly salary, that’s an insane amount.

The other major challenge identified in the West of England is the distribution of economic success. On average household incomes are higher in our city region than they are in most others, as are employment rates, but these average figures hide a number of significant divides and inequalities demonstrating that not everyone has shared in this relative success. The rise in productivity is not being translated into increasing pay and it is the lower paid workers who have faired less well in recent years. The post-crisis pay squeeze has been felt most by low to middle earners in the West of England.

Anyway, back to the event itself. There was a panel including Conor D’Arcy from the Resolution Foundation; the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees; Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless Media; and John Savage from the Chamber of Commerce. After an initial introduction to the report from Conor, the other participants then set out what they thought were the key challenges facing the new metro mayor and what the role entailed. There was relative agreement about the role itself, with some concerns expressed about the central imposition of this new metro mayor on our area, but also general acceptance that is was going to happen therefore we had to make the most of it.

The participants each covered a range of issues with Marvin setting out how he thought we should be talking about behaviours rather than structures and that the role was about collaboration, emotional intelligence and complementary sovereignty. The difficult task would be to find shared priorities given the diversity of the patch. Jaya talked about the need for civic leadership and how this could work at a city region level before going on to raise concerns about in-work poverty and how this is a key issue across our area. John reminded us about the inequalities across our divided city region and how these included the same areas as those of 10/20 years ago, leaving the same people behind decade after decade. He outlined how he thought the role of the metro mayor was an enabling one, which would undoubtedly be hindered by the leadership of some of the constituent authorities.

The discussion that followed was varied and initially picked up on the housing crisis and the problems young people were experiencing across the city region, with the need to build more affordable homes emphasised as well as the need to control rents and improve the security of private sector tenancies. There was also a debate about sovereignty, centralisation and power distribution, with most agreeing that the relationship between government and local councils was more like a parent/child relationship, with the government in control. The need for a structural and cultural rebalancing of sovereignty was stressed, with the point made that devolution seemed to be about devolution of austerity rather than power and that for city regions to succeed in addressing inequalities there needed to be more resource as well as responsibility passed down by government. It was suggested that cities also needed to be proactive, setting out how they want to solve their own problems, then they are likely to receive more support from government to enable those solutions.

One of the concerns raised was regarding the different levels of governance and areas covered and how these would work together. Clearly with North Somerset not included as part of the West of England Combined Authority or as part of the metro mayor area, this presents some challenges, given they are part of the Local Enterprise Partnership area. Other anomalies were also identified, with Bath and North East Somerset included in a different Health Partnership Area and a different Housing Market Area. Working across the area is complex and developing shared agendas a real challenge.

The Resolution Foundation report makes three main recommendations on priority areas for the new metro mayor:

  • Become Britain’s first full employment city – further progress could be made on boosting employment rates in deprived parts of the West of England and for single parents to edge close to that goal of full employment.
  • Boost pay for low and middle earners – the Metro Mayor should act as convenor to encourage productivity-raising responses to the National Living Wage as well as promoting uptake of the voluntary Living Wage.
  • Build more affordable homes – affordable housing should be front and centre of the combined efforts from local leaders, with a key role for the Metro Mayor to drive through the process of implementing the Joint Spatial Plan to deliver new homes.

These priorities, along with developing shared agendas and collaborating across the city region and with Whitehall and Westminster are what this new role is all about. Despite the perceived lack of powers and resource there is a glimmer of an opportunity that needs to be taken. The candidates are currently being announced and the election for the first Metro Mayor takes place in May this year. Given there are no other local elections this year it will certainly be interesting to see if this election will manage to grab the attention of the voters and what the turnout will be.

Grab the power, use it, then ask for more!

BWST02 AW AerialSo it seems Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and North East Somerset Councils have signed up to the devolution deal on offer and with it have agreed to set up a combined authority with a directly elected metro mayor. Whilst this was indeed the most likely outcome, there was always the possibility that it could be derailed at this point.

Earlier this month North Somerset Council opted not to be part of this, they said an emphatic no to the deal. So the full area covered by the Local Enterprise Partnership will not be the same as the deal area. This in itself could cause future complications when discussing strategic planning and transport. But, let’s not dwell on that, the important thing to note here is that politicians in North Somerset voted to exclude their population from receiving this extra funding and additional local power. They’ll just have to sit back and watch the other areas benefit from it instead!

It would be fair to say that whilst the deal was agreed in the other three areas it was with significant reservations and concerns. Those concerns focused primarily on the notion of the imposed structure, which was made clear from the start – without a metro mayor there would be no deal. The idea of creating another powerful position, which sits above the existing Bristol Mayor and other Council Leaders, is clearly something that will take some getting used to. Equally, the idea that there is an imposed structure, devised by government, is never going to be particularly popular with local politicians, decision makers and the public. But thankfully, other than in North Somerset, this was not enough on its own to derail the deal.

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency and accountability of the whole process. Most of the initial discussions were held in secret, behind closed doors, involving local leaders with Whitehall officials. The content of those discussions did not become clear until the deal was published. This in itself is challenging, for those local politicians not included, for the public and those with an interest in local decision making it meant buy-in to, and understanding of, the deal was limited. It means we have little idea of what was not included and why, we only know what is there now. Did our political leaders try for more powers over housing, health, and education, or does the deal reflect the limits of their ambition? Did they challenge and discuss how economic growth could be made to work for those traditionally excluded from the benefits of ‘trickle-down’ and try to address the issues in a different way? I guess we’re unlikely to know, all we can do is work on what was agreed and draw our own conclusions on what we think is missing.

I posed a number of questions about the devolution deal earlier this year, which remain pertinent now: would it matter if we didn’t agree it; is it worth it; is it the right structure; and what’s missing?

In terms of the first two questions then I think the answer is becoming even more clear now, with the events of last week (Brexit), Bristol and the city region need to take whatever is on offer to enable more independent and local control over what happens in our city region. As a diverse, forward thinking city region, we need to make local decisions about key issues that impact upon our area. I say, grab the power and use it, and then go back and ask for more, and more again. In the Bristol city region we have the capacity, ambition and foresight to make this work, to be at the forefront of creative and innovative policy and action, and now more than ever this is what we need to do. I applaud our politicians for making this difficult decision, failing to do so could have left Bristol behind other city regions where deals have already been struck.

Don’t get me wrong; I personally have concerns over how this whole thing will work, whether the current deal is enough, whether the structure will work, and whether there is enough flexibility to really address the issues that matter in our area. But, as others have said, it is the only offer on the table, without it we stay where we are, we lose out on money and power whilst other areas benefit.

As for the metro mayor and combined authority, then I can see both pros and cons. The combined authority that has power to take decisions over key strategic matters without constant reference back to each local council area is in my view something we have needed in this area for some time. The metro mayor is a different matter. There has been no consultation over this, no opportunity to see if there is a public appetite for such a role and no real open debate about the benefits it could bring. Indeed, the government itself has consistently failed to make the case for metro mayors, other than to make it clear you have to have one to get the deal.

But nonetheless, that’s what we are stuck with, so lets embrace the idea and make the most of it; make it work for our city region. What it does potentially provide is a role that has the interests of the whole city region at its heart. The metro mayor will promote and speak for the city region in its entirety, rather than represent a small part of it. We haven’t seen that kind of strategic leadership for some time and it has been sorely missed.

The final question I asked was about what’s missing from the deal. In relation to this then I think the door is still open. Where deals have been agreed in other areas it seems to have provided the opportunity to continue negotiations, to add powers and keep the discussion going. So there’s an opportunity for the Bristol Mayor and the Leaders of the other two councils to go to government and ask for more.

How about asking government if we could suspend the right to buy on council properties across the patch or in certain areas, or even just for new build council housing? Why not, parts of Wales have? How about taxing developers for stalled sites, charging them a tax on unbuilt properties, could this have been included, can we ask for it now? Now’s the chance to consult with more colleagues across the city region, talk to other areas and push hard on what is possible.

Perhaps rather than reluctant agreement we should be embracing the deal and everything it brings with it? The important thing now is to get as much as possible out of it and make it work for us.

Bristol Mayoral Election – What about housing?

CcYfmnsWEAAKjbFWell, we’re almost there, the election is next week. It’s time to decide who will be the next directly elected Mayor of Bristol. With all 70 seats on the Council also up for election it looks set to be an interesting week. Hopefully this time the turnout will be higher and local people will be more engaged in having a say over who governs their city.

Over the last few months I’ve been looking closely at how housing policy has been discussed and debated publicly during the election process. At the beginning of this process it wasn’t clear quite what the political priorities would be and whether or not housing would feature as a key issue. But as time has progressed housing issues have certainly become a big part of the debate. Perhaps not surprising given the very real pressures people are feeling in relation to housing in Bristol.

The Bristol housing market looks something like this:

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The statistics below will give you a feel for some of the housing problems Bristol faces:

  • house prices have increased by 29% over the last 10 years
  • private rents in the city increased by an average of 18% in 2015, the highest in the country (alongside Brighton)
  • 28% of privates homes fall beneath the decent homes standard
  • one of the highest increases in homelessness acceptances in the country
  • one of the highest rough sleepers figures in England
  • 2010-2015 only 1490 affordable homes built against need of at least 800/year
  • in the last few of years over 100 council houses per year lost to right to buy
  • in the 12 months prior to March 2014 just over 1200 new homes were delivered in Bristol but only 97 were affordable
  • between 2016-2036 Bristol needs 18,800 needs affordable homes, that’s 940/year

These figures make disturbing reading and really only provide a snapshot of the problem, but are nevertheless useful as background to the debate. I should point out here that the information for this blogpost is drawn solely from publicly available material produced in manifestos, action plans, websites, Facebook pages, hustings meetings and media interviews with the main candidates.

So with all this in mind, what are the mayoral candidates saying about housing? Well, I’ll break it down into 4 main policy areas and take these in turn: overall housing delivery, affordable/social housing, private rented sector, and homelessness, .

Firstly, on overall housing delivery, several of the candidates are making promises to build 8,000 new homes over the next 4 years, that’s 2,000 houses per year of which up to 2,800 will be affordable. This is broadly the commitment made by George Ferguson, Tony Dyer and Marvin Rees, with variations around the numbers of affordable homes (I’ll come back to that later). It is less clear what the Liberal Democrat and Conservative proposals are other than Charles Lucas identifying a priority to build more homes and Kay Barnard highlighting the need to ensure all brownfield sites are developed for new homes. So increasing the number of homes built is a priority for all of the main candidates, but what is missing from much of the discussion is just how they will achieve that. Detailed proposals on the policy changes needed are at this stage largely missing from the public documents. When challenged at some of the hustings meetings candidates have provided more information. In particular, there appears to be some agreement over the need to set up some form of arms length, council owned company to deliver affordable housing projects. Just what this means and how it would work is less clear, but examples are available from other cities where similar proposals have been made using different models, such as the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. The point here is about changing the role local councils play in increasing the supply of housing, through partnership and enabling roles rather than as sole deliverers. This was an important recommendation in the Elphicke-House Report produced last year which identified the need for local authorities to take responsibility for making development happen in their area.

The delivery of social and affordable housing also appears to be a priority for all the main candidates, some more explicitly than others. Here the focus is on affordable housing, often with no clear definition of what is meant by affordable, but with some making the distinction between the government’s definition of affordable and what is actually affordable to people in Bristol. There’s a real debate to be had here about what local authorities can actually do to increase the amount of affordable housing delivered in their area. With government policy squarely aimed at encouraging home ownership, the public and social rented sectors have taken a bit of a battering. Add to that the proposed extension of Right to Buy to housing association homes, the relaxation of planning S.106 agreements on affordable housing and the curbs on the ability of councils to borrow money to build new social homes and you begin to see that any commitments here are made with one hand tied behind your back. Just what can local authorities do to make a difference? Some of the suggestions include looking at alternative forms of housing, like self-build and cooperative housing, modular build and pre-fabricated housing, as a means of delivering more affordable housing. There are definitely options for more work in this area. Bristol, once upon a time, led the way in self-build, but has sadly fallen behind many others places now as support from the council has reduced and development has become more competitive. I wrote a piece for the Bristol Cable on alternative housing as an option, you can read it here.

The private rented sector as a provider of housing in Bristol has become ever more important over recent years, now providing 24% of homes in the city. This in itself brings with it a number of concerns and issues, such as security of tenure, affordability and quality of provision. All these are concerns in Bristol, as they are in many other cities and towns, where the need to find cheap, affordable housing drives individuals and families into renting unfit accommodation, living in overcrowded conditions, and living in fear of eviction. There is little control over the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and little the council can do to regulate price and quality, and what control they do have is often not fully implemented. As a result of concerns about PRS provision in certain areas of the city, a trial scheme was implemented in Easton and Lawrence Hill, where discretionary licensing was introduced for landlords. This scheme is being rolled out slowly into other areas of the city, enabling council inspections to ensure minimum standards are being met.

In response to issues highlighted by tenants, Acorn have established an Bristol Ethical Lettings Charter, which Bristol City Council have now supported, but this is still only voluntary. This Charter is a declaration of decency and a statement of intent, to help create a fair, professional and ethical private rental sector, it asks landlords and agents to commit to certain standards of security, cost and quality. George, Tony and Marvin all feature policies on improving the PRS, which include rolling out the Ethical Lettings Charter and introducing a landlord enforcement scheme. These priorities would certainly go some way to addressing the concerns of many tenants in the PRS. Giving voice to those tenants is also important, which is where Marks Out of Tenancy could help with their proposal for a website where you can rate your landlord or letting agent, a sort of TripAdvisor for the PRS.

The final issue for debate is homelessness, an increasing concern in Bristol, with more rough sleepers and declarations of homelessness than other cities outside of London. The response from candidates to the issue has been mixed, some don’t mention it, others identify it as an issue, but have few solutions. The ideas that have been mentioned include bringing empty homes back into use, increasing overall housing provision, providing more emergency shelters and providing more support for those who are homeless. Of course there are no easy solutions, people are homeless and sleeping rough for many different reasons and will need varying levels of support at different times to help them address their problems and issues. For those with complex needs there’s an interesting approach being used in the US and Canada which sees housing as a basic human right and seeks to provide immediate access to permanent housing for homeless people. Starting from that premise removes the need for those who are homeless/sleeping rough to go through support programmes and overcome addiction problems before they access decent housing, it starts with housing first, and has seen some significant success. There are different ways of addressing problems and there are some creative and successful approaches out there if only we would look beyond the norm.

Overall it is clear that housing features as a key priority for many of the mayoral candidates, but to date the level of debate has been disappointing, with few new or different solutions discussed. To some degree this is perhaps to be expected, with local government working within a difficult environment of cuts and central control. It’s also fair to say that most hustings meetings and debates have little time to get into the detail as they try to address a range of big topics with up to 13 candidates! I’m hoping the housing hustings taking place on Friday April 29th will provide a little more of that detailed discussion, where the ideas and solutions can be developed further.