Housing, devolution and growth – top posts of 2015

IMG_3362Well it is that time of year again isn’t it? Time to sum up what was popular on my blog in 2015. Housing, devolution, growth and a bit about values, sums up the topics of the five most popular posts. These were closely followed by others on housing, devolution, cities and governance, with the odd diversion into PhD world.

So the winner of most popular blog of the year is one I wrote quite recently and that got re-published on a few other blog and news sites too – the invisibility of homelessness. This was a somewhat emotional blog about living in a prosperous city like Bristol, where homelessness is increasing and where more and more people are finding themselves in need of help and support in order to have a decent home to live in. It was also about the plight of ex-servicemen who live on the streets and how we have let them down as a society. The topic obviously struck a cord with many people as the post received twice as many views as the next most popular.

The other top posts were as follows:

  • Time to return to core values – this was a post-election commentary about the Lib Dem and Labour leadership campaigns and the need for a real, grown up political debate about core values and principles. A debate that is as relevant now as it was in July!
  • The devolution debate: what about Bristol? – about the need for a metro mayor and combined authority, and why devolution matters, with growing concerns that the Bristol city region is being left behind. Again, as relevant now, if not more so, as it was in May when I wrote this piece.
  • How to solve the housing crisis – this post was actually about a pre-election debate I went to with parliamentary candidates, where there was common agreement on the housing problem and that things needed to change, but where there was little in the way of innovative or creative solutions on offer. An interesting debate but one that left me feeling less than positive about what might change post-election.
  • Constraints on growth: what’s holding our cities back? – a post based on a report by IPPR and Shelter on growing cities, which identified the main constraints and provided some interesting and practical solutions for overcoming these. My take on the matter was that in the Bristol city region we needed a change of attitude and a growing willingness to embrace change before we could make a difference. Sadly, much of this willingness is still lacking and the constraints that are holding us back are still there, as they have been for many years.

One post that almost made it, and is worthy of a mention (at least in my view) is one I wrote after going to a debate about measuring poverty and living standards. This was about using evidence to support policy and how to attract policy makers attention by telling the right story, with some important lessons from New Zealand. This is no doubt a debate that along with the topics highlighted above will inevitably continue into 2016.

This year is going to be a busy year for me, with PhD fieldwork now in full swing, during a concentrated period leading up to the Bristol Mayoral election in May, so blog posts may be somewhat infrequent. We’ll see, but hopefully I’ll manage a few if you still keep reading them. Thanks for all your views, comments and support throughout 2015, much appreciated.

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What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.

City Mayors or LEPs – who decides?

DSCN0159Following on from my last blog about the need for LEP Economic Plans to take note of poverty and social inclusion issues it seems timely to consider the role of LEPs. From many of the comments received in response to that blog (for example on LinkedIn discussion groups) there appears to be a view that LEPs are there to create jobs and that others should be (and are) responsible for thinking about difficult issues like addressing poverty. Indeed, if you consider that LEPs are supposedly business led and their focus is on jobs growth and GDP growth, then perhaps it is wrong to assume that they would have anything to say about social inclusion or how the jobs they create could be made more accessible to those most in need. Personally I disagree, but clearly there is some opinion out there that says LEPs are small organisations with limited funds and staffing so their focus should be on core issues in order to actually achieve anything.

In my view, this brings into question the whole issue of why we need LEPs, what their role is and why, particularly in cities, they are the right vehicle to deliver on economic growth in isolation. You could level these questions at various aspects of the role of LEPs by asking why they were set up in the first place – was it because the current government had such a low opinion of local authorities that it thought this was a better solution, and they were of course desperate to get rid of the Regional Development Agencies, so had to replace them with something? Or was it because they thought business could do a better job of deciding where investment in roads, buildings and other development should be? You could equally argue about he negative impact these types of quangos have on democratic accountablity, taking decision making away from locally elected politicians and putting it in the hands of appointed boards full of business people who are accountable to no one. Add to that issues around what role local communities have in LEPs and how they can engage with these quangos and their plans and it begins to create an interesting but perhaps negative picture.

Perhaps more importantly, the question that springs to my mind is about LEPs and city regions – when we have combined authorities working across some of our key cities and their hinterland and we have directly elected mayors in some of our core cities, how does this work when you also have LEPs, sometimes covering different spatial areas? Add to that the issue about whether or not you can really consider economic growth without serious attention to issues of poverty and social inclusion (and of course environmental sustainability) then you can see the landscape of decisions, plans and strategies becomes somewhat cluttered – who really holds the power and makes the decisions?

The recent launch by the Centre for Cities of their Think Cities initiative which sees cities as the focus for change and believes empowering cities as the mechanism to tackling a range of urban issues is critical and you can begin to imagine just where some of these clashes and tensions may occur. I can’t help but agree with the Centre for Cities, cities are where the most significant growth will be seen and where the greatest changes can be made to provide solutions to our biggest problems around housing, jobs, public services and skills. But where city authorities have to compete with, or operate through, LEPs this is bound to reduce impact, increase confusion and complexity and water down ideas and change. When you have to get agreement from other councils to every decision, plan and strategy, then too often the lowest common denominator is what you end up with. The idea of directly elected mayors was to create accountable, visible leadership in an area, but by introducing LEPs into the equation the government have significantly weakened the ability of those mayors to deliver on ideas and innovation because they are effectively working with one hand tied behind their backs.

But even ignoring the fact of added confusion and complexity, what about the functions and roles of LEPs, what are they there for and why are they supposedly best placed to deliver on local economic growth? LEPs are charged with providing “strategic leadership on local economic priorities” including planning, housing, transport, skills, jobs etc a pretty big agenda, but when you consider they were set up with little or no funding, have few staff and limited resource, you have to question whether this is just too much? Would they be better focused on areas that clearly require significant input from business, such as the skills agenda and business support? Why should they be responsible for planning or housing issues when these have been core local council domains in the past, and indeed many would argue, should continue to be led by those with the democratic accountability rather than those with potential for conflict and vested interest?

With a reduced role focused on business support and skills I could see a key role for LEPs working across larger geographies, supporting the work of city authorities to deliver on jobs, housing, planning, social inclusion and sustainability (amongst other things). But their current diverse role is clearly too much for many LEPs to grapple with and we are in danger of missing some key links across agendas and of delivering on very little, as we stretch LEPs beyond their capabilities and abilities.

This should be an important issue for Party Manifestos going into the 2015 election. If we are being encouraged to think cities, then we need to address the existing landscape of decision making to properly put cities at the forefront of our economy. For me that means that, at least in city regions, there is no place for LEPs.

Economic Growth & Poverty – LEPs take note!

There is no guarantee that economic growth will reduce poverty – that’s the conclusion of some excellent work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on cities, growth and poverty. I was so pleased to see this report published recently because it reflected the exact point I had been trying to make about the Strategic Economic Plan currently being developed by our Local Enterprise Partnership in the West of England.

My initial views on the West of England LEPs plan for economic growth are set out here in a comment piece for Bristol 24-7 and in an earlier blog here – they’re quite critical about the lack of any attention to inequality of opportunity and the lack of an overall inclusive vision for the city region. The main point being that the plan seeks to focus on GDP/GVA and jobs growth, through key sectors and key locations. None of which does anything directly to address the fact that key areas of the Bristol city region suffer from multiple deprivation and poverty. My contention here is that you can’t have  a plan for economic growth that ignores poverty, the plan needs to be based on that very issue and grow from there. Instead of which what we have is a plan that neatly seeks to sweep whole geographical areas and difficult issues under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist.

The answer of course according to the LEP is to create jobs and grow GDP because that solves all our problems and makes Bristol a more prosperous place. However, as the JRF report points out, productivity and output growth have little short term impact on poverty, and jobs growth will only have a positive impact on those in poverty if the sectors, type and location of jobs are targeted and focused in a way that makes them accessible to those that most need them. I see little evidence in the Strategic Economic Plan for the West of England that suggests this is either their focus or their intention.

To my knowledge, the same areas of Bristol have been in the bottom 10% of the most deprived wards in the country for some considerable time now, they include Ashley, Filwood, Hartcliffe, Lawrence Hill, Southmead and Whitchurch Park. These are all areas where we know there are problems, where unemployment is high, food and fuel poverty are real issues, educational attainment is low and there is a generally a more low skilled workforce. These are also areas that have been the focus of significant levels of regeneration funding and resource over many decades, but yet the problems persist despite these interventions, possibly because we can only ever touch the surface with short term funding or maybe because the interventions were the wrong interventions and not enough has been invested over a long enough period of time?

To my mind the Strategic Economic Plan currently being developed by the business led, unelected, unaccountable quango that is our Local Enterprise Partnership should be where these issues are addressed; where the focus of our attention is on jobs, skills, housing and infrastructure improvements to bring opportunities to the areas that really need them. The reality is that what we have in the West of England is a plan that will merely reinforce the status quo. It will provide jobs in sectors and locations less accessible to those that really need them and will invest funding and opportunities in areas where development is already happening. Why do we need to support and invest more resource in the Science Park, Avonmouth/Severnside, Bath Riverside when these areas are already being developed? Why are they more worthy of infrastructure, funding and support than South Bristol? One has to seriously question the logic that says we will support what is already happening rather than use new resource to make real change where it is most needed. Add to that the fact that the plan is somewhat reluctant to talk about housing which is surely a major cost of living issue for many. Some serious work is needed in this plan to address issues of housing supply and affordability, but once again the plan is found lacking in this respect – perhaps another issue that is just too difficult to deal with?

The danger of the LEPs current approach is we fall into the trap of tackling growth separately to poverty, rather than using growth as an opportunity to address issues of poverty. By doing this we miss the opportunity to really make a difference and we also miss the opportunity to get the most out of growth and realise the true potential of the Bristol city region. With a focus on poverty reduction the economic plan could boost economic growth, productivity, income and spending power as well as reduce the welfare burden. By not addressing poverty we reinforce existing divides and consign whole areas of our city to ongoing poverty and all because we don’t have the vision or ambition to really do something about it.

So what can we change and what needs to happen? It is probably too late to really influence the LEP plan, because let’s face it, they don’t really want to know and will maintain their inherent bias and focus on extracting money from government, to the government’s agenda rather than a local agenda based on need. The answer – an alternative plan? or a groundswell of activity to boost jobs and growth where it is needed? Or just maybe, enough of a challenge to our politicians to make them listen, to be brave enough not to just go along with the LEP and its plan, to change it? One can live in hope!