A confusion of governance?

DSCN0141Devolution, cross border partnerships, growth deals and city region plans seem to be in the news just lately, but what does it all mean for our cities? Will these new deals and partnerships really make much difference or are they just an added confusion to the story of local governance? In Bristol the story is a particularly complicated one. With tight administrative city boundaries, Bristol is reliant on partnership working to get things done around transport, infrastructure, housing and growth. It can’t do it alone.

Some years ago, once the county of Avon was abolished, public/private partnerships were set up to work across the old county area on strategic issues. One of those, the West of England Strategic Partnership, has now been reformed into the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), to meet government requirements for partnerships focused on growth and jobs. This brings together the 4 councils that cover the old Avon area – Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset. Seems there was some sense to the old County area after all? Things seem to muddle along in this partnership, despite the antipathy between the councils and the different political line ups across them. But does this level of governance really work when it is merely based on voluntary partnership? Does it work when the city of Bristol is the driving force? And can it continue to work with all the different approaches to local governance stretching across the 4 councils?

To illustrate this, just consider the challenges now Bristol has a new system with an elected mayor, but the other 3 councils don’t. South Gloucestershire has retreated to the old committee system of governance, whilst the other 2 councils retain the leader with cabinet and scrutiny split. That’s 3 different styles of local governance operating across the 4 councils. Now consider the political make up of those councils. Bristol, having lurched around from Labour to Liberal Democrat and back again, now has an Independent Mayor running the council, with Labour the largest group on the council but no longer in control. North Somerset has a deeply rooted Conservative Council, with a significant majority for a while now. Bath & NE Somerset council moves between Liberal Democrat and Conservative, with slim majorities and is currently Lib Dem controlled. South Gloucestershire is currently under Conservative control. So the political differences are also there for all to see.

Added to this complexity are the roles and responsibilities of the sub regional partnership under the guise of the LEP. It covers business growth, skills, jobs, and transport, and has a role in strategic planning for housing and employment space. As the core city, Bristol is at the centre of the discussions about growth deals, about new devolved responsibilities and a member of the core cities group that lobbies government on these issues. But on it’s own it can’t actually deliver much of the growth because it is hampered by ridiculous administrative boundaries that leave ⅓ of the urban area within the control of a different council (S.Glos). So around here we rely on informal partnership working to get things done, through an LEP that tries to be inclusive, but largely fails, and which seeks compromise in order to get agreement, reverting to the lowest common denominator all too often!

Now it seems we are adding a further complexity to this already complicated scenario. Bristol has teamed up with Cardiff and Newport in a cross border collaboration, in a new partnership called the “Great Western Cities” region. Its focus will be on improving transport infrastructure and connectivity, harnessing the energy generating potential of the Severn Estuary and marketing the area as a great place to do business. I can see the benefit of this kind of linkage but wonder quite how it sits with the West of England LEP and their plans for growth and development. Why is Bristol going it alone to seek new partnerships when we have a long standing one in place already – is it because it’s not working perhaps? Is it because Bristol has more in common with the likes of Cardiff than it could ever have with the other councils around here? Whatever the reason, it is an added level of complexity to an already complex system of local governance.

Darren Jones, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West, has outlined his views on this new partnership, suggesting it is either to do with politics and elections than anything else, or Bristol giving up on making things work in the traditional city region in favour of a new option. I have some sympathy for his analysis and discussion. Whilst I have never been entirely convinced by the LEP and its ability to deliver, we can’t afford to stop trying to get it right. Whether that is a new partnership with other areas, or more formal working structures across the West of England, something needs to change but quite what is clearly a point for debate. Indeed, one of the things that seems to be missing in all this is the public debate, where has there been a real opportunity to discuss properly what is needed and what would work best for the communities of Bristol and surrounding authorities? Is it just a decision for a handful of politicians, or does it need wider discussion?

It will be interesting to see how these informal partnerships progress and what benefits they bring to our city region. It’ll also be interesting to see if we really can compete with the more formal, structured systems being put in place elsewhere. With Manchester leading the way with its new devolution deal and metro mayor, and others such as Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham  and Newcastle following rapidly, will the Bristol city region be left behind? The story will no doubt unfold over the coming months.

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Bristol – a divided city?

Bristol – a divided city was the subject of a short documentary produced by BBC One for Inside Out West (sadly no longer available to view on iPlayer). The story is one of a growing city, one that on first glance seems prosperous and wealthy, but once you scratch beneath the surface and move out of the centre of the city, a poorer, less wealthy and altogether different kind of city is revealed. The programme served to illustrate just how different people can experience the same city, how different areas of a city are excluded from the growth and opportunities that others benefit from and how so far we have largely failed to provide solutions that make a real, long-term difference. Sally Challoner, BCC reporter, provided a picture of the divided city with a snapshot of some truly shocking statistics outlining just how many children live in poverty in our so called prosperous city – 25% across the city as a whole, but with massive differences depending on where you live – 53% in Lawrence Hill and 34% in Southmead, but only 1% in Henleaze.

The quote below is from Sally’s reflections in the programme on growing up in Hartcliffe and so neatly sums up the reality facing many people in Bristol –

“Of course, growing up in poverty you don’t really know any different. It’s only when you go out into the wider world that you realise that maybe your education wasn’t great, your family doesn’t have any business contacts to give you an idea of how to get into the employment market, your parents can’t help you with a deposit to get you onto the housing ladder, things like that. So you start out life with a disadvantage and spend years just trying to catch up.”

In the programme itself and in a Radio Bristol discussion the same day there were two key points raised that I thought I’d explore further, as I believe they are both flawed in their explanations and solutions:

  • With a strong economy, providing more jobs, everyone will benefit.
  • We need more money & power from government to solve the problems of poverty in our city.

The first point was made by a Tory MP and is an often quoted response to poverty and social exclusion – if we just provide growth and more jobs everyone will eventually benefit. Indeed, it’s the very argument used by the Local Enterprise Partnership and the business community for focusing our economic plans on existing growth sectors and areas rather than having anything real to say about areas and communities traditionally excluded from the benefits of growth. I am firmly signed up to the school of thought that says ‘trickle-down’ economics doesn’t work, just providing lots of jobs won’t solve poverty in our cities. Of course it helps and a growing economy is certainly better than one in recession, but growth on its own does not provide opportunities for all people and communities, it doesn’t overcome the problems that exist in the poorer areas of our cities. If it did, the growth experienced in the 1980s and beyond would have changed the social and economic map of Bristol. Instead, we find the same areas of Bristol featuring in the most deprived areas of the country now as we always have, the same ten communities with high poverty indices now as 10, 20, 30 years ago. The sooner decision makers and politicians in Bristol accept this the sooner we can move on from flawed policy approaches that clearly do not work.

The second point was made by Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, and whilst I would agree that more money and/or greater ability and power to do things differently in Bristol would be a help, it will only work if we stop seeing poverty as something completely separate to economic development and growth. It reminds me of the debate about environmental issues 20 years ago, when environment was seen as separate, something that should be dealt with separately and not relevant to the council’s core business. Putting things into neat little silos is not the answer, it just makes it easier for everyone to ignore it or assume it’s someone else’s problem. That’s what used to happen to environmental issues, and it’s what we are in danger of doing with issues relating to poverty. Surely part of the answer has to be using what resources and power we already have to address poverty as part of every policy and strategy area. Why treat it separately?

Other areas seem to have taken up the mantle of combining economic development and poverty, of creating Strategic Economic Plans through their LEPs that have alleviating poverty and social exclusion as the main purpose of their plans – see an earlier blogpost I wrote on this for some examples – (Consigning trickle down to the dustbin of poverty). The challenge in Bristol is how we make this happen when the current approach appears to be about creating silos of activity – poverty according to the LEP is not their problem, someone else is dealing with that, they are just about jobs and growth. How do we encourage the business community and the LEP to see alleviating poverty as integral to the growth of the city region, to increasing out prosperity as a city and to truly achieving the potential that the whole city has? How do we ensure that future City Deal’s, Strategic Economic Plans, bids for funding and Council strategies and plans all have addressing poverty at the heart of them? A tall order no doubt, but until we do, then we are consigning the same communities to living in poverty, in a world where the divide between rich and poor is ever increasing.

Garden city or urban extensions?

With all this talk about garden cities, new towns and urban extensions it almost seems like we are coming to some kind of consensus in terms of future house building and how to increase the supply of new homes in the UK. But will it actually come to anything? In previous years we have had promises of eco-towns and urban extensions, with few actually developed in the areas where housing need is greatest and we’ve had politicians promising to address the housing crisis, but policies have fallen well short. But just imagine that some of this actually comes to fruition and proposals for garden cities, besides Ebbsfleet, are actually put forward, and a whole host of urban extensions to existing conurbations are not just proposed but actually planned and developed. The question this raises for me is what does it mean here in Bristol and how will we respond?

In the recent past we have had proposals for urban extensions to Bristol, mostly resisted and removed from plans once the regional/national housing targets were abolished, but to my knowledge there has been little if any consideration of the notion of a new garden city in the area. If we accept there is a housing need locally, and few would dispute this, and we accept that not everyone wants to live in high density inner city areas, then what are the best options for accommodating the Bristol city-region’s housing need? And let’s dispel the myth that all the housing we need in the city region can be accommodated on brownfield land – it can’t. That may be true for the next 5-10 years but is pretty unlikely beyond that and planning for larger scale development takes time so needs to start now, not when we run out of other options.

Has there been any detailed work in recent years to consider the idea of a new town or garden city and would any of our local councils be brave enough to come forward with such proposals now? Would 2-3 extensions to the existing urban area be a better option? These are questions that we may well find ourselves forced to address over the next 10 years, as plans for jobs growth in the sub region continue there needs to be some serious consideration of how to accommodate the growth in new homes that this will generate (as well as addressing an existing backlog).

These are some of the issues the Lyons Review of Housing is considering as reported in The Guardian recently. One of the interesting points to come out of the review so far is this notion of communities having a say in planning but not the right of veto – an important distinction and one that councils and communities seem to forget. All too often local councils are afraid to propose new housebuilding and are resistant to change because of the strength of local opposition. The blame for lack of development then gets attributed to the planning system, when really it is down to politics. Until we can get a better balance between opposition to plans and the need for new homes, then the housing crisis will continue and councils will continue to shy away from proper planning for housing.

So, should we be considering a garden city and/or urban extensions, both have their merits and their problems. To some extent urban extensions are obvious where there are opportunities close to existing centres, where infrastructure is already in place and transport connections available. Garden cities provide the opportunity to start afresh, to provide sustainable communities through proper planning – an exciting opportunity if carefully located and if land assembly and ownership is sensibly organised. Here we need to take note of David Lock’s warnings about the failure of eco-towns and the potential barriers to the development of garden cities. We need to sort out the planning permission and land assembly in a different way to how most developments currently work, otherwise we will surely fail.

Its an exciting and challenging time to be a planner with an interest in housing, there are so many opportunities and innovative ideas out there that could make a difference, but will we embrace them? I’d like to think that with an Elected Mayor and a forward thinking Local Enterprise Partnership, Bristol could really lead the way on some of this. However, too often local ambitions are dampened down by the surrounding authorities and an overwhelming desire to protect and preserve, whilst ignoring the hardship and need this perpetuates. Those that have, protect what they have very successfully, whilst those that don’t have just struggle on through the daily grind.

The solution is to be brave and have a vision, and to hold on to that vision when the going gets tough – something the Bristol Mayor seems to be good at, so maybe there is hope after all? It’s also about taking people on the journey with you, a difficult one when it comes to new housing, but somehow we have to break the mould of resistance and turn it into acceptance and support – that is undoubtedly where our biggest challenge lies, in changing hearts and minds in North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Is this a role for the LEP or the Mayor, or just maybe a bigger role for the nation state, for government intervention to make it happen? No doubt the run up to the 2015 general election will give us some clues on this as different political groups define their agendas and manifestos, but whatever happens, housing and planning seem set to remain as a key issue on the political agenda for some time to come.

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?

Is ‘good growth’ the way forward for LEPs?

DSCN0444Once more the discussion turns to growth and prosperity, with the launch of the Smith Institute report on ‘Making local economies matter’ written by John Healey MP and Les Newby. This new report looks in detail at the policies lessons to be drawn from how the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) worked and assesses the early experience of their replacement bodies – Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). It’s a timely piece of work, that follows on neatly from the JRF report on Economic Growth and Poverty (which I blogged about here) and has been produced in time to feed into political manifestos and policy debate leading up to the 2015 General Election.

I don’t intend to do a full review of the report, as I am sure others will cover that better than I can, but I will draw out a few key issues that resonate with my experience of LEPs and where concerns have been raised before. There is much to be welcomed in this report as it provides a good discussion of many of the big issues relating to local economic development, the role of LEPs and who decides where priorities should lie. When you look back at the RDAs it’s interesting to note just how much wider their role was than the partially self-imposed narrow role that LEPs seem to have taken up. RDAs did have a long term vision for physical and social regeneration, and the important point to note here is their role in ‘social’ aspects not just economic and physical regeneration and growth. This is definitely something missing from the LEP remit. They also planned for the long term and set out a strategic vision, without the RDAs we seem to be moving back to short term bidding for funds and delivery of government programmes without any long term vision available for what we are actually trying to achieve. Clearly a mistake, as this leads to lack of coherence, lack of coordination and an inability to really address the issues that matter.

The report picks up on 7 key areas where policy changes or improvements are needed in relation to LEPs, these are set out below:

  • sub national economic development role
  • geography and functional economic areas
  • issues LEPs should cover
  • funding and capacity
  • type and culture of LEPs
  • accountability
  • monitoring

I don’t intend to cover all of these areas, just the ones I think are most important. So, I’ll start with the debate around functional economic areas (FEA) and how we ended up with the LEPs we have now. In my experience this was definitely a local political decision, influenced heavily by local authority politicians and officers who were keen to keep FEAs to fit with local council boundaries. In the West of England this was certainly the case, as others tried to encourage discussion about a wider geography, potentially focusing on the M4 corridor or linking with Gloucester/Cheltenham urban area, the council representatives were keen to close this down and ensure the boundary fitted with the four local council areas. Is this the best FEA or could it be better? It’s certainly the smallest in geography and population of all the core city LEPs and sits within the list of smallest LEPs in the country only just hitting the 1 million population mark. I guess it works as a city region, but only just, and it could have been far more creative and innovative to go with a different geography based on where the growth really is and potentially far more powerful if it had encompassed other growth areas.

For me though, the biggest issue that this report raises is that of regional and local disparities and the role of LEPs in addressing these. The analysis at the beginning of the report makes it clear that because much of the initial funding to LEPs was based on a flat rate, that actually meant the smaller LEPs, often those in the most prosperous areas, got a higher rate of funding per head than those most in need in the least prosperous areas. There’s an interesting debate here that I recall from various business discussions in the Bristol city region – do you invest in the areas that are most able to provide growth and GVA contribution to UK plc or do you invest in those areas that most need it. Of course the conclusion to that discussion in Bristol is very much focused on invest here because we can contribute more as a prosperous and growing area. However, all that does is increase the regional disparities that already exist and consign other areas of the country to continued decline, whilst areas like Bristol do quite well and continue to prosper. It’s an interesting conundrum for any government to address and the current approach seems to be giving to those that already have rather than those that don’t, but surely not an approach that can continue indefinitely?

This, of course, also all comes back to how you define growth, the subject of another blog I wrote recently – Economic Growth & Poverty. In the Smith Institute report they talk about ‘good growth’ being the aim rather than economic growth and argue that the concept of growth that the LEPs are addressing needs to be clarified:

“The concept of ‘good growth’ or ‘sustainable economic development’ infers a focus on achieving growth and on the way in which it translates into employment, incomes and opportunities for disadvantaged communities, and low carbon/environmental benefits. Adopting a good growth agenda for LEPs should support wider policy messages about the need for growth to a make difference to people’s pockets and to reduce poverty.” (p.58).

Now if the role of LEPs were to be widened to encompass this concept of ‘good growth’ then the Single Economic Strategy for each LEP area would look very different and would have to address issues in a much more holistic manner than the current SEPs do – what a welcome change that would be! But LEPs cannot do this on their own, the local economic plans would need to be set within the context of a national plan – a national strategy for addressing regional disparities and one that focuses on areas of disadvantage. This would enable LEPs to address similar disparities at a local level and focus on the issues that really matter rather than those that fit neatly with certain funding pots.

There’s clearly a big debate to be had about the issues that LEPs cover, and to a point this depends on other issues, such as accountability and nature of the organisation. If LEPs continue in form and structure as they are at the moment, with such a big emphasis on less than transparent appointment processes, focus on business and little role for representatives from other sections of society, then I suspect any widening of their role will be resisted from all sides. However, if accountability is improved, processes of appointments to the LEP boards are opened up and clear output based measures are introduced to assess and monitor performance, then there could be a wider role in strategic planning, housing and social regeneration.

I look forward to seeing how the debate progresses, but certainly for me the important issue here is the focus on a different type of growth – good growth – that translates growth into addressing inequalities and disparities and doesn’t rely on ‘trickle-down’ as a means of ensuring everyone benefits.

Economic Growth & Poverty

Are we asking the wrong questions?

DSCN0159In February I wrote a blog about economic growth and poverty that talked about why a focus on creating jobs and GDP growth wouldn’t actually tackle poverty. This followed some excellent work from JRF on Cities, Growth and Poverty which concluded that there is no guarantee that economic growth reduces poverty. At the time I was particularly concerned with the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and the Strategic Economic Plans (SEPs) they were developing. In discussions arising from my blog, I found many people ‘defending’ the position of LEPs on the basis that their remit is clearly to create jobs and grow GDP; they are not there to address social issues, apparently, that is for local authorities and others to deal with. Therefore, the SEPs being developed would of course be focused on jobs and GDP growth and not a lot else – they are after all merely plans to extract funds from government rather than real plans created to deliver what is actually needed in an area – they are dancing to the tune of central government! The questions this leaves us with are:

  • Should we be planning for economic growth that doesn’t address core issues, like poverty and inequalities of opportunity, in an area?
  • Are we addressing the wrong question to start with?

What I mean by the last point is, what if economic growth isn’t our best option, what if the question should be about something else entirely. To consider this, think about what makes a city a good place to be, what makes our neighbourhoods great and what do we enjoy about life – is it really just about having a job and earning money? What got me thinking about this issue again was two things; one was losing my job last year, which is pretty life changing and makes you think about what you really value in life and what motivates you; the other was some reading I was doing for an essay. The essay was on whether or not capitalism is compatible with an environmentally sustainable world? The reading around this subject sent me back to Jonathon Porritt’s book “Capitalism as if the world matters” something I read in 2007 when it was first published, and to books I hadn’t read before – Joel Kovel (The Enemy of Nature) and Tim Jackson (Prosperity without Growth), all brilliant books in their own way and all presenting different approaches to the same question with different responses and solutions.

What struck me most was firstly, trying to put together some compelling facts about the ecological crisis we face and what it looks like was not as easy as I thought it would be – I couldn’t find in one place the key facts around the issues I wanted to present and finding up to date statistics on key issues was pretty difficult. Secondly, there was something compelling about each of the different arguments presented, I could have accepted elements of all of them – I summarise (inadequately) the key points below:

  • if capitalism (neo-liberalism) is about continual growth then in a finite planet this can never be compatible with environmental sustainability, and capitalism is to blame for many of the ecological crises we face – true?
  • capitalism reforms and evolves to provide solutions to the problems it causes, so technological advances will help us to solve the ecological problems we face and growth can continue – possible?
  • within a capitalist world alternatives already exist in different places, traditional growth can be stopped and prosperity can be measured in a different way that doesn’t rely on increasing personal consumption – yes?

And so to my main point, and maybe I am coming at this a lot later and slower than many who have been pushing some of this agenda for a fair while (such as those involved with Happy City) but the point is – should we be focused on measuring prosperity as a city/city-region/area in terms of economic growth alone, or is there another way? And would that other way be more inclusive? That’s not to say that we all stop worrying about having a job, earning money, buying a bigger house, taking holidays, etc but that we stop seeing these as the key to personal status – a process we all seem to get trapped in to a greater or lesser extent. Maybe part of the answer is about introducing a range of other measures that cover things like, quality of life, governance, education, health, and environmental/ecological resilience rather than money, economic growth and consumerism.

We tried this, sort of, in 2010 when David Cameron launched the National Wellbeing Programme – a new way of measuring wellbeing and measuring our progress as a country in a different way! In his speech, however, Cameron made it very clear that this was not an alternative to focusing on economic growth and GDP growth rather it was just an add on – “growth is the essential foundation of all our aspirations” apparently and by that he meant economic growth. So we can measure wellbeing, but not at the expense of GDP or other economic measures, because they are more important! The quote below on the government’s own website sums it up perfectly:

“It’s important to say that this is about neither replacing GDP nor creating a ‘happiness index’. The objective is to complement the more traditional economic measures used by policymakers and to provide an additional way to think about what we value and the progress we’re making as a society” National Wellbeing Website.

So not really a particularly worthwhile Programme then and it certainly doesn’t seem to have changed anything for the better – we are living in a more unequal society now than we were a few years ago, there are more people in poverty with less access to even a basic quality of life, more people using food banks, more people excluded from a housing market that seems to cater for those with money and exclude those who really do need somewhere to live! The question remains – are we measuring the wrong things?

This seems a particularly pertinent question a the moment, with the recent publication by the Post Crash Economics Society (PCES) at Manchester University which talks about how economics is being taught in Universities and the type of economists this is producing, as well as why those same economists were incapable of predicting the Financial Crisis of 2007/08, issues discussed by Alex Marsh in his recent podcast ‘rethinking post-crash economics‘. It also comes at a time when Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century‘ is receiving much acclaim for its questioning of a system that leads to the “growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite” – powerful stuff but what will be the response?

But what’s all this got to do with LEPs and SEPs – well probably nothing and that’s the point, they are addressing entirely the wrong issues, focused on economic growth and jobs, with little or no view about quality of life and equality of opportunity. So does it matter that these plans and partnerships are drawing up plans and bidding for funds that will make little or no difference to the majority of people in their area – no probably not? We are focusing on not only the wrong question but the wrong plans, we should perhaps be focused on plans for “prosperity without growth” on plans that focus on those most in need and address the very real issues they are facing. Plans that are about creating quality of life for everyone not just the select few and that show no tolerance or acceptance of poverty and inequality. Those are the kind of plans I would like to see developed and I hope they are already there or in progress, but I see little evidence of this in practice – I wait for others to tell me they exist!

Postscript – interesting article in The Guardian, published 29-4-14 about Bhutan and their pursuit and measurement of Gross National Happiness rather than GDP

Who really governs our cities?

DSCN1063A few weeks ago we had a really interesting class discussion about “who governs cities”, all kinds of issues cropped up and were debated, with examples from Bristol, Hong Kong and Ankara. It was a fascinating class conversation that got me thinking about how decisions are really made in our cities and who is in control, and how this plays out in Bristol.

It’s interesting because it may not be as simple and obvious as you first think! Anyway, it’s also the subject of one of this terms essays which I decided against doing, so I thought I’d write a blog about it instead – that way I don’t have to couch everything in academic evidence and argument but can just explore the issues in a simplistic and opinionated manner (as with most of my blogs).

So, have you ever thought about who runs Bristol and how decisions are really made in our city? You might well give a different answer now compared to a few years ago – with a directly elected mayor isn’t it kind of obvious who is in charge and who makes the key decisions that affect what happens locally, who it is that controls policy and exercises political control over the city? Maybe, to a point, and it is certainly clearer now than under previous systems. Our city mayor is a high profile individual, who many in the city have now heard of (compared to previous council leaders) and who does seem to get the blame for most things that people don’t like in the city! However, it is never quite that simple is it? There are of course 70 councillors democratically elected to the city council to represent residents – what’s their role in decision making under this new mayoral system? It’s certainly very different to the old days of committees. To me this seems like an interesting area for research, how has democratic decision making in cities changed as a result of cabinet and scrutiny systems and how is it different under an elected mayor? I covered some of these points in a previous post about the role of local councillors and how it has changed over time.

Of course one also shouldn’t forget the role council officers play in decision making locally, they are after all the paid civil servants advising our mayor and councillors. One only has to look at the recent fiasco over by-laws in parks to see just how powerful and influential officers can be in relation to what gets on the agenda – they nearly got away with that one! Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue the way in which this happened illustrates how things can and do work in local government.

But back to the issue of central/local control. One of the clear messages to come from the council budget process this year is just how much control central government has over our city. It is national government that is largely imposing the scale and extent of the cuts needed to produce a local balanced budget, the city council and mayor are merely responding to national policy and rules. The room for manoeuvre or flexibility is limited, although I accept there were some options to do things slightly differently. But the main point remains the same, national government has a high degree of control over what happens in Bristol, not just through budgetary control but also national policy, rules, regulations and legislation. As we are frequently reminded, we have one of the most centralised systems in the Western world, with high levels of power residing at national government level rather than devolved and delegated to local democratic structures.

So there are high levels of central control over our city. One of the ways this has manifested itself in the past is through the creation by government of local quangos. Mrs Thatcher was particularly keen on this kind of approach as a means by which she could bypass local government, largely in Labour control, and impose central Tory policy locally without worrying about irritating things like local democracy. The most obvious example of this was the Bristol Urban Development Corporation. This was set up in 1989 to take control of the development process of land around St Philips Marsh and Temple Meads. Much of the current Temple Quay development is still premised on old permissions granted under the UDC, that’s one of the reasons there is such a high level of car parking with each office block and why there is, in my view, no coherence, quality or sense of place to much of what has been developed. The key land use planning and design decisions were taken out of the hands of the local council and given instead to an unelected, appointed body who were more focused on delivery at any cost.

Perhaps the UDCs most significant intervention, and the one that caused the most controversy locally, was the “Spine Road” now called the St Philips Causeway, there was much local opposition to this but with little impact, the road was built, despite the fact that council, local people and environmental groups were opposed to it. The legacy of central control over cities like Bristol is clear to see and it’s not necessarily a positive one, sadly our government don’t seem to be very good at learning the lessons from past mistakes. There is undoubtedly a role for quangos and partnerships in helping to deliver on the aspirations of the city but not at the expense of local input, accountability and engagement, and certainly not where they are merely the ‘puppets’ of central government. We no longer have a UDC in Bristol but we do have a Local Enterprise Partnership – another creation of central government, imposed locally to take decisions out of the control of the Mayor and our local councils. Yes I accept these are ‘partnerships’ and local councils are of course involved, but where does the balance of power really rest and more importantly is it stopping things happening that otherwise our directly elected City Mayor would be delivering on? I’m not suggesting I know the answer to this, merely raising it as an interesting question!

So, we have an elected mayor whose hands are tied by central control over our city even now, but who else might also be influential in what goes on and how decisions are made? The next obvious group to mention is the business community. We have a strong and influential business community in Bristol, which is to be welcomed in many respects, with organisations like the Society of Merchant Venturers and the Chamber of Commerce & Initiative representing many of the big business interests. You only have to look at who chairs the key public bodies in the city, who is on the LEP board and who chairs it, who chairs our Hospital Trusts and who is on the board of our Universities to see that the Merchant Venturers still hold many positions of influence and power in this city – they really are everywhere. I leave it to you to decide and consider whether or not this is a good thing and whether the intentions and interests of these Merchants are likely to reflect the broader interests of Bristol, it’s an interesting point and one that generates many different responses. Whatever your views though, the business community in this city undoubtedly has an influence over how the city is run, decisions taken and possibly more importantly, over decisions that are not taken! Have you ever wondered just why some things don’t get onto the agenda in Bristol or are stopped before they get anywhere?

Our class conversation also skirted around the issue of civic society and the role communities and voluntary organisations have to play in decisions. In Bristol much of this sector has been brought together over the years through VOSCUR, an effective coordinating body for many voluntary and community organisations in the city. Indeed, Bristol has quite a tradition of community “activism”, both spatially and topic based, playing a key role in helping to create the diverse and vibrant city we live in. Again, the extent to which these groups, organisations and communities really help to shape decision making in our city is debatable and people will undoubtedly have different views. But they exist in large numbers and engage in city decision making, so to some extent have an influence.

So the answer to “who governs Bristol” is complex, there are many different actors involved in decision making both formally and informally with different constraints and opportunities and with different degrees of transparency and openness. So how do we really know who is most influential? Can we tell by simply looking at outcomes and identifying who benefits from them most, who gets what they want from decisions in Bristol? Again, not a simple question to answer, and it will undoubtedly depend on what decisions you are referring to and how easy it is to identify who does actually benefit.

Perhaps the biggest and most significant question to ask is – does it matter? Do we need to know? If we did, then at least we would know who to blame or who we should seek to influence. Or do we need to know so we can understand why things are the way they are? To my mind, we need to understand as best we can so we can seek to change things for the better. However, this understanding is clouded by lack of transparency, lack of clarity, secrecy about how things are done, undemocratic structures, central control and lack of equity in engagement. A complex area with clear and obvious implications for how our cities work and how decisions are taken – I’m sure each of us can think of many examples where a decision has been made, that impacts on us, but where we can’t quite see how the decision makers ever got to that decision or why! Or we can think of examples of things that just haven’t happened or haven’t been discussed openly, but can’t quite work out why not.

That’s the power of influence wherever it comes from and that’s why we need to understand it!