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?

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!