Consigning ‘trickle-down’ to the dustbin of poverty

There’s some excellent debate being generated at the moment about economic growth and poverty, with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, New Start Magazine and Centre for Local Economic Strategies leading the way with some excellent reports and blogs over the last few weeks. Whilst I’m not sure I can add much more to what has been said, there are a few key points just worth pulling out and exploring in a local context, to illustrate where we might learn something from this important discussion.

What much of this debate boils down to are the following key observations:

  • trickle-down doesn’t work
  • economic growth and poverty can’t be tackled separately
  • gap between rich and poor is widening

Perhaps the biggest issue that needs emphasising is that trickle-down just doesn’t work – disputed by some, but more accepted now than ever before, is the notion that if we create enough jobs and prosperity then everyone will benefit eventually is a myth. A myth supported and promoted by those that do benefit, by those that wouldn’t understand poverty as they have never experienced it and/or by those that actually just do not care – it’s an easy cop out for decision makers and politicians, it’s easier just to see economic growth as the solution without having to worry about other things, that are all too complex! So the focus is on economic growth, as a separate policy, without looking at difficult things like poverty and inequality of opportunity as these are dealt with by others in different policies and strategies.

But, as Neil McInroy of CLES points out “what’s the point of local economic development if it does not deliver social outcomes or address poverty” – exactly, what is the point? Growth for growths sake, that marginalises issues around the distribution of benefits is pointless, it merely serves to increase the wealth and prosperity of those that already have wealth to begin with, rather than address the very real issues of poverty experienced by many people in our cities, towns and rural areas.

Seems pretty obvious when you distill the debate to such simple concepts doesn’t it? So why is the government still entirely focused on approaches to economic growth that retain obvious silos around jobs/GVA/GDP?  Perhaps it’s a continuation of an approach that seeks to demonise those in poverty, who may not have a job (although many do), and who dare to claim benefits from the state or seek ‘handouts’ in the form of food and housing? Or maybe it’s just a natural fall out from our national political focus on austerity and Plan A, with all activity centred around reducing the deficit by hitting those hardest who actually have the least? Whatever the reason our government seems to be ignoring the obvious, that is doesn’t work, and not only that but they are imposing their views and approach on us at a local level. Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are producing economic strategies that focus on jobs and GVA growth, because that’s what’ll get the money from government and that’s what they’ll be assessed against.

Some areas, though, do seem to have the ambition and critical thinking ability to go beyond the government brief and to draw the connections between growth and poverty and to bring their own local agendas to their economic plans. For example, as discussed by Josh Stott of JRF in New Start Magazine, the Leeds area seems to be doing something different by working in partnership to address poverty as part of the economic strategy, by linking the two agendas together and acknowledging that poverty reduction is very much on the agenda of the council, city region partnership and others. Manchester is doing something quite interesting too, by working with CLES to look at how to build a local civil economy, in a report which outlines the importance of civic leadership where it is everyone’s responsibility to shape the destiny of the city by working together – difficult to argue with that but so often not how decision makers and politicians see things.

However, not everywhere seems to be embracing this agenda or taking the opportunity to challenge the government over the narrowness of theirs. I’m sorry to say that, to me at least, it looks like Bristol and the West of England are following the silo mentality of government and through the Strategic Economic Plan developed by the LEP and supported by all four local councils, are merely seeking to grow jobs and GVA in the hope that this will eventually, somehow, benefit all those in need. The plan has a heavy focus on ‘return on investment’, mentioned endlessly as perhaps our biggest selling point – if the government give us the money we’ll make more money for them and the UK economy than anywhere else outside of London. So we draw up a strategy that does that, focuses on high growth sectors, where productivity is high and can be further improved, where multiplier effects are greatest.

But, and this is a huge but, so what? What benefit does that provide us with locally and more importantly who will benefit? Not those in the most poverty, not those in low quality jobs and not those who need it most. And, of course, anyone who dares to challenge this is accused of lacking ambition, or being uncomfortable with growth and change and not wanting the best for Bristol. Some of the business community have very strongly promoted the notion of critical mass and the need for growth and prosperity, which of course we will all eventually share in. Sadly they seem to be missing the point – this just doesn’t work and the evidence is there to clearly show that it doesn’t work. So why do business leaders, the West of England LEP and some of our politicians constantly fall back on this outdated, irrelevant notion? Is it because it serves existing implicit agendas, suits those already in power or those who are doing quite nicely out of the way things work at the moment, or is it just they don’t care or don’t understand? I can hazard a guess at the answer, as I’m sure you can!

So the question remains, what needs to change to make this work better? The report by the Smith Institute (the subject of a recent blog) talks about the need to reform LEPs and focus on ‘good growth’ which at least would be a start. But, change needs to happen quickly, before these plans get set in stone and form the future of our economic policy locally and nationally. I’d like to see business, politicians, LEP members take the economic growth and poverty agenda on board properly, with ambition and clarity, because why wouldn’t you?

Does Bristol needs its own think tank?

IMG_0594Over the last 6 months or so several people have approached me to talk about how we can create the right opportunities to generate and encourage debate about the key issues in Bristol and how this can be done in a collaborative, inclusive and positive way.Typically for a place like Bristol, there seem to be several groups of people discussing and considering this at the moment without necessarily talking to one another! The interests of the different groups do however seem to be focused on similar issues, that is, how we challenge decision makers and influencers, how we help to inform and raise awareness of issues and challenges and finally how solutions can be developed and discussed.

That’s not to say that these things don’t happen, just that maybe they don’t happen in a coordinated manner, sometimes the approach might be too challenging and negative, or simply that important issues get missed and are not discussed. Equally, there also seems to be a tendency for some decision makers (in our local Councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership) to get too defensive about criticism and challenge, to  actively discourage debate and discussion on key issues and to ask for the views of a select group of people and organisations rather than encourage wider engagement.

So it got me thinking about how you could approach this desire for involvement and engagement with the decision making process and decision makers in a different way, as clearly there is a gap that needs to be filled, as perceived by a range of people including politicians, professionals, partnership managers, community activists and academics. As part of some of the recent discussions the term “think tank” has cropped up regularly – one of those terms that often means very different things to different people: “universities without students”, “ideas factories” and “enclaves of excellence” are just 3 of the terms used to describe think tanks. I personally favour the definition used by McGann & Sabatini in their book on Global Think Tanks (2011), which in summary basically says they are about generating policy focused research and advice to enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.

So if we were to consider this for Bristol, what would it do and could a Bristol focused, independent and progressive think tank be part of the answer? Traditionally the main roles of think tanks can be grouped into 4 main areas all of which I believe are relevant to what is potentially needed in Bristol:

  • Think tanks as educators – informing debate, providing research and raising awareness of issues
  • Think tanks as influencers – acting as a clearing house for ideas and helping to develop policy
  • Think tanks as networkers – facilitating networks to support and develop the exchange of knowledge and policy transfer
  • Think tanks as translators – helping to make academic work more accessible to politicians, the media and policy makers

It is this kind of intervention and independent thinking that Bristol might well benefit from. As an important city region Bristol is clearly successful but equally faces many of the challenges that other cities in the UK face. Surely providing an arena for debate and discussion on  a regular basis, from a range of independent experts, academics, interested parties, communities and others will provide us with better solutions to these challenges than continuing to rely on the input of the same people and groups that have always had good access to decision makers? There is an opportunity here for Bristol, and the Mayor, to lead the way and respond to the Centre for Cities “Think Cities” campaign by creating the right environment for challenge, by being open to debate and criticism and by widening the networks for participation. The potential benefit for the Councils and the LEP is they get more constructive criticism focused on solutions and positive policy change rather than negative, angry criticism with few answers and they get a wealth of easy to understand information and research, focused on the needs of Bristol, with clear, simple messages and solutions. What’s not to like?

We already have some of the structures in place that this could sit under, it needn’t mean a big new organisation costing lots of money. A logical starting place could be with the work of Andrew Kelly and the Festival of Ideas/Economics, the main emphasis of which is to engage and encourage debate and discussion. It could be linked informally to the work of our excellent universities – for example at Bristol University we have the School for Policy Studies, which in its research and teaching covers many of the policy issues of importance to Bristol: city leadership and governance; housing policy; poverty and social inclusion; health inequalities; social justice; and economic development. The expertise is already here we just need to tap into it better and use it to help support creative and innovative thinking in a way that is welcomed by local decision makers and that can help us to make positive and real changes.

There may well be many of you out there that say you are already doing some of this, or who want to part of anything that might happen – I welcome comments so please let me know if you think this is an idea that could work in Bristol.

Would you support the development of an independent, progressive think tank focused on  the Bristol city region?

Why we should bring back the Committee System!

With all this talk about George’s first year as Bristol Mayor and whether having a mayor has made a difference, it’s made me quite nostalgic and got me thinking about how good the old committee system actually was!

I’m not normally an advocate of looking back, as there is little we can change about past decisions or actions, but on this occasion it struck me that where we are now has been so governed by what people perceived as the problem in the past, that just maybe we can learn some valuable lessons by looking back.

The old committee system came in for significant criticism in an Audit Commission Report published in Sept 1990 – its title “we can’t go on meeting like this” gives you a clue of where its starting point was. Much of what the report said was interesting and useful and is a good reminder for current day discussions.

The report kicked off the debate about whether or not councillors could really deliver on all main aspects of their job well when they were expected to spend so much time on council committees dealing with operational and day to day issues. The committee system was seen as too clumsy and constrained by political voting systems, there was no real debate, councillors spent too long on unnecessary and irrelevant discussion, making few decisions and got too involved in the day to day running of the council – basically they spent too much time in meetings that didn’t really achieve anything.

In Bristol this debate took hold and the council was criticised for being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, too much politics, no clarity over who took decisions etc. It seemed like the momentum was really building for local government change into a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, more scrutiny etc.

As the debate continued amongst local government analysts, academics, politicians, local and national government, more of these issues were discussed and more criticisms levelled at this old fashioned, out of date system. The outcome of all of this debate and criticism of the committee system, that had existed for some time in local authorities, was the Local Government Act 2000 which basically got rid of the old and brought in a new set of models for local government. Councils were asked to chose one of the following:

  • Leader and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and council manager executive
  • Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number now choosing to go back to a committee system. But did this new approach work?

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. To be honest, it didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already, made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members anyway. However, what this new approach did do was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised, disillusioned and un-needed. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better. And, in Bristol, with yet more change and an elected Mayor, these feelings must be further reinforced and compounded.

What the old committee system did encourage was discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision – a good example of democracy at work. However, there were equally too many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote!

So looking back and then forwards, what can we learn about what improvements we could make now. Well, with a directly elected independent Mayor in Bristol things are totally different – in George we have a council leader and someone who will use that leadership role to take decisions without consultation, who won’t pander to the other elected members on the council or their party politics, and who can do pretty much what he wants for the next couple of years before the voters of Bristol will be able to do anything about it. And that is exactly what people voted for when they voted to have a mayor and then voted for an independent – so be careful what you wish for Bristol.

Yet, what we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

By getting rid of committees we have left a lot of councillors wondering what their role is and by bringing in an elected mayor we have once more reduced the role of most councillors to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy.

That isn’t why I became a Bristol councillor back in 1994 and if I were one now I would quit! I would want to be involved in developing a vision and strategy for Bristol, priorities for the way forward and addressing the inequalities of our city and that’s why we need further change that reflects what our cities need and borrows the best bits from different systems. Rather than a constant leap into what works in America must work here, or throwing out everything because it doesn’t work, without actually thinking about the bits that do.

Yes we need change, but let’s develop local solutions that work locally not generic systems borrowed from elsewhere, that if you look hard enough, don’t even work there!

I would love to know how current councillors in Bristol feel about all this and whether or not they think their role has declined and reduced?