The living standards challenge facing the Metro Mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Measuring Poverty and Living Standards

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorlling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

IMG_4039Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

Britain – A Land of Opportunity or Despair?

As the Tory Party conference draws to a close and Party conference season ends, what will we remember about any of them in a few weeks time? Did we get memorable announcements or just the same old politics? Could we have predicted much of it? I’m left feeling slightly confused and irritated – the middle ground of politics is well and truly crowded, with all 3 main parties vying for control, trying to appeal to everyone and only minimal differences showing between them.

I was looking for Labour to be more socialist, the Tories to show their true colours and the Liberals to break away from the constraints of coalition politics and show us what they are made of. And to be fair we got some of that, Labour showed they are the only party with an interest in reducing inequalities and providing opportunity for all, but didn’t go far enough on some of the issues that really matter, such as the railways, environmental policy and the Living Wage. The Liberal Democrats were a bit of a let down, with little substance to show us what difference they would make if they were in government for longer (except ban carrier bags!). And as for the Tories, well I guess they did actually show what they are about – penalising people who are out of work and characterising them as lazy scroungers, supporting big business and sticking to Plan A on austerity because it is clearly working!

The Prime Minister talked about Britain as a Land of Opportunity but is that what we really have under the Coalition Government and is it what we would get with Labour in Government? I have my doubts, there are policies across all 3 main parties and those put forward by the Green Party that would get my support but sadly overall no single party goes far enough.

No one made real commitments to adopt a minimum wage that is a Living Wage – why is that? How are people expected to live on a minimum wage that doesn’t cover living costs?How do we achieve a decent standard of living for all if the basic concept of paying people properly for the work they do cannot be implemented and doesn’t have the backing of all the main parties?

I’m no clearer now on how we are going to tackle energy policy to ensure we have both environmentally sustainable and secure energy supply for years to come. There were Tory commitments to fracking and nuclear power, Labour promises on energy price freezes and some talk of renewables, but overall, no convincing energy policy from any of them.

Housing was a key area of policy discussion, which in itself was pleasing, but again not entirely convincing. Promises were made about building more homes and helping people to buy, but I didn’t come away with the view that politicians have actually really understood why we have a housing crisis and what is needed to solve it. The discussions were often single focused, which really doesn’t help. You can’t solve the housing problem by just talking about housing. You have to consider our Industrial Strategy, our business focus, regeneration, regional policy, infrastructure decisions etc. All will contribute to solving the problem that we are not building enough homes in the right place at the right price. The constant focus on either the development industry or the planning system is not the answer – yes these are part of the problem, but so is our regional policy and industrial strategy, so are Government decisions around infrastructure spend. Until all these matters, and more, are brought together in a proper housing strategy the crisis will only get worse.

A land of opportunity or just muddling through? 

 

Labour in a race to the top?

Much of the criticism of the Labour Party over the last couple of years in opposition has been centred on their lack of policy and lack of clarity on what would they do differently?

What Ed Miliband delivered at Labour Party Conference was policy, policy, policy. We had clear announcements on a a range of issues including a commitment to freeze energy price for the first 18 months of a Labour government, a programme to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020, a business rate reduction for small business, a commitment to increase the minimum wage and the bedroom tax to be repealed. The focus was very much centred around the cost of living and how Labour will make a difference with the often repeated phrase – Britain can do better than this!

Ed was unashamedly populist with his announcements but also hit some of those socialist buttons that many in the Party were calling for. A great quote from George Eaton in the New Statesman – “If Miliband is a socialist, then so are most of the electorate” summing up his view on the immediate reaction to the Labour leader’s conference speech.

However, many will not be convinced by the rhetoric, there will still be questions from within the Party about renationalising the railways, bringing energy companies back into public ownership and the introduction of a Living Wage. Others will question the level of commitment to the environment and whether or not Labour policy goes far enough – what is their view on fracking, why continue to support nuclear power, how will they create green jobs, what would they do differently?

A race to the bottom is how Ed Miliband termed the Coalition Government’s record but did he do enough to convince people that Labour can do better and would be engaged in a race to the top?

Greens to learn from UKIP!

The Green Party conference has now drawn to a close and attention has very definitely turned to the Lib Dems in Glasgow. But what did we learn about the Green Party?

Well, one thing that we learnt was they have some admiration for UKIP! Surprising? Not really when you look at why – as a minority party on the fringes of UK politics, UKIPs approach to campaigning and the successes they achieved at the last local elections are worth a detailed look to see how other less mainstream parties can learn from them, and that’s exactly what the Greens are doing.

But what of policies and direction? The two key speeches, from Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, were both great examples of what the Green Party have to offer. They put themselves over as the main alternative to the three mainstream “neo-liberal” political parties. Indeed anyone listening to their speeches and attending the Green Party conference could have been forgiven for thinking they had walked into the wrong place and instead headed to a Labour Party conference back in the days when Labour were truly socialist! And much of it was refreshingly good to hear. Continue reading

People before Politics?

What can we expect from Party Conference Season?

The next round of Party Conferences are almost upon us and this time the pressure is on as all the main parties are in the process of defining their manifesto policies for the 2015 General Election.  The autumn conferences are a great opportunity to share some of these policies more publicly, as well as get feedback and party buy-in to them.

But what will be the focus of each of the Parties? Continue reading