Time for grown up politics?

Photo - Bristol1st

Photo courtesy of Bristol1st.com

I am writing this blog after reading an article in the Bristol Post by the Mayor of Bristol about what it’s like to be Mayor and the extent of the abuse and vitriol he has to put up with on a personal level everyday. Now, having been a politician myself  in Bristol, I am more than aware that local politics (and national politics) frequently descend to the petty and personal. But it does seem to me that the position of Mayor has exacerbated this side of local politics in Bristol, because it does exactly what it was meant to do, it focuses everything in on one person, it makes them the centre of attention and deflects from the other 70 councillors elected to represent people.

If you look back at why Bristol wanted a directly elected mayor all the talk was of having clear leadership, one person to act as a figurehead, and clarity of decision making. It strikes me that that is exactly what we have – we have someone who is willing to take some of those tough decisions, we all know who is responsible, there is clarity over leadership and decision making, and that’s now part of the problem. But really, why all the fuss, why the negativity and why make it so personal?

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Why we need Planning “Champions”

DSCN0268In the July edition of The Planner I wrote an opinion piece on why we need more planning champions, both locally and nationally (see article below). Part of the purpose of the comment piece was a response to the local election results, but actually when writing it I came to the view that these results were unlikely to have a major impact on planning  locally, at least not in the short term. What seemed more interesting as an issue was how local politicians deal with planning and what they know about planning before they are elected.

This is important because even in this world of cabinet and scrutiny, or mayoral systems, we still have planning committees where real decisions are taken by back bench councillors. Existing and newly elected councillors will undoubtedly pick up planning casework and some will sit on these planning committees, but how do we prepare them for this quasi-judicial role? There is a real need for ongoing training for councillors on the workings of the planning system, and I say ongoing quite deliberately, as things are always changing in the planning world. Even once a local plan is approved there is still plenty to be aware of as a councillor.

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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?

All things housing – politicians take cover!

Social housing in ViennaLast week I did my first in depth radio interview for some time on the topic of housing. This was a discussion with Tony Gosling from BCfm Politics Show (21st March 2014). Preparing for it got me thinking about a whole host of issues to do with housing and how successive governments have approached these issue – has government policy created housing bubbles? has it helped or hindered the stabilisation of the housing market? what is the motivation behind much of our housing policy? does it make any real difference to housing aspirations and housing choice? Key questions to address if we are to understand what the solutions to our housing crisis are. Some or all of these issues will no doubt find their way into future blogs.

But back to the interview – we covered lots of different issues all of which form part of the housing problem as well as some of the solutions – such as, housing waiting lists, help to buy, affordable housing, why we don’t build enough homes, land banking, criminalisation of squatting, custom build and the conversion of empty office buildings before we got into a conversation about “what is town planning?”. What struck me during this discussion was the number of issues that immediately come to mind when talking about housing and how so many of these things are interlinked and connected. So is it any wonder that when faced with the big question of how we solve the housing crisis politicians take cover or merely come out with 1 or 2 simple policy interventions that may or may not make a positive difference?

From a policy perspective it seems to me that the solutions are less than clear, many are not easy to implement and there may well be some we haven’t yet thought of or haven’t tried recently. Equally, there seems to be disagreement about what will make the most difference, where our priorities should be and what we should focus on. Again, it is not entirely surprising that national and local politicians therefore fix on some simple solutions, or quick fixes, that may well have a whole range of unanticipated or unintended consequences, that could actually make the problem worse.

The challenge for anyone involved in housing policy, it seems to me, is threefold:

  • reaching some kind of consensus on what we are seeking to achieve as well as the priorities and solutions that are needed;
  • identifying simple and quick solutions that will satisfy the political game leading up to the next election that won’t have significant adverse impacts on the desired longer term direction; and
  • developing a longer term strategy for shaping housing policy into the future which we can work towards in short, medium and long term.

There’s a serious job of work to be done by housing and policy professionals to lay the groundwork for a solutions based realistic answer to the housing crisis, otherwise it will only get worse as politicians flounder, grabbing at any easy solution presented to them. The debate is already happening and politicians are taking note, now more so than for many years, but will it be enough and are we focused on the right issues? It’s a fascinating time to be interested in housing policy and politics and it’s a debate I’ll watch with interest.

If you listen to the podcast of our discussion (my interview starts at about 25 mins) it will very soon become clear that I know less about housing issues than I thought and even less about how the economy works! I can however talk about it all for hours, even if I do hate listening to myself on the radio.