Time to return to core values?

logosOn Thursday (9th July) I went along to a Bristol Festival of Ideas and Guardian Live event at the Arnolfini in Bristol, where the two Liberal Democrat leadership contenders (Norman Lamb and Tim Farron) were in discussion with Andrew Rawnsley. It was a fascinating debate, with real honesty and integrity from both speakers, expertly facilitated by Andrew, which left me thinking about how seldom we seem to engage in real political debate about the issues that matter. Too much of the debate we see and hear is shallow, reactive and glosses over the real problems and instead focuses on ones that are easier to solve or popular to attend to.

What was so refreshing about the approach taken by both Tim and Norman, was the recognition of what had gone wrong during the general election and how they needed to get back to positive campaigning. The focus was very much about core values and rebuilding the party on those values and principles, with a realisation that the Liberal Democrats need to remind people what they really stand for and give people a reason to vote for them. It was a grown up debate about principles and values, about issues that really matter and thought provoking on what Liberalism is and who it appeals to.

Tim Farron spoke eloquently about the housing crisis as one of the biggest issues we are facing at the moment. He spoke about wanting to make a difference to people and doing what’s right for the powerless. Norman Lamb referred to the importance of the liberal principle of community politics and reminded us of the need for ideas, inspiration and vision. They both saw the Lib Dems as a radical, progressive party that needed to operate effectively beyond and outside the Westminster bubble.

Despite their obvious agreement over many issues and general approach, the two leadership contenders couldn’t be more different. Tim comes across as a charismatic, opinionated, confident and someone who will undoubtedly take bold positions on key issues. Whilst, Norman, is quieter spoken, more deliberate and considered in his approach, providing an air of wisdom and experience as well as a long standing record of delivery on Liberal values. I was impressed with both for different reasons and they would seem in my view to make an excellent double act at the head of the party! As the members vote draws to a close over the next week or so it will be interesting to see who wins this contest and what direction they take the party.

For me the debate and discussion was interesting because it is exactly what I had been hoping to see in the Labour leadership contest, a grown up political debate where the issues that matter are addressed in a thoughtful and considered manner. But perhaps more important than this is the need for the labour party to go back to basic principles and remember why it was set up and where its core values are. Sadly, so far, I have seen little evidence of this kind of self awareness in the party, with little serious reflection on what so obviously wrong for Labour during the election. The constant suggestion that it’s because Miliband was too left wing so the party needs to move to the right, reflecting conservative policy and values, is deeply worrying and depressing.

For me the Labour Party has always been about challenging inequality and poverty, representing and standing up for those that are powerless, and providing and supporting the services we need in a civilised society so everyone benefits from them. Somewhere along the line the party seems to have forgotten some of these values and is playing a reactive role, firefighting whatever the latest Tory policies are with little to offer in exchange. That’s why the Labour Party need to have a proper debate about what the party stands for, what its core values are and what that means for the future leadership of the party. Without that debate, how do we judge leadership contenders? How do we know how the party will move forward? Without that debate, people like me will continue to remain outside the party, looking for a way forward politically and for a party that reflects our core values – it used to be Labour, but isn’t any more!

Does politics matter?

ed3The question, does politics matter, is perhaps particularly pertinent at the moment. After attending various hustings meetings, watching the leaders debates and question time on the TV and listening to some local radio debates on the general election, there’s no better time to ask whether or not all this ‘politics’ really matters or makes a difference? It’s a question that academics have been trying to answer for decades, with a wealth of literature in the political sciences and policy studies arenas addressing questions about why some issues receive attention, whilst others fade into obscurity? Who influences the agenda and how? Who controls what issues are dealt with? This debate becomes all the more focused during election periods, where issue competition is perhaps at its greatest.

I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into the agenda setting literature, looking at agendas and issues during elections, in party manifestos and policy programmes, to see what others have written about these issues. It’s clearly a good time to be doing this, as the process is playing out before our very eyes in the run up to the general election. So, what does influence what parties and politicians talk about in the run up to the election? What influences the content of their manifestos? To a point, you’d expect the main political parties to favour their own ideological agenda and hold true to their traditional policies and priorities. But you’d also expect them to respond to a range of other influences. According to the academic literature, party manifestos and policy programmes at election time are a function of at least four main influences:

  • party ideology and tradition
  • the immediate concerns of the public/voters and the media
  • the long term priorities of government, and
  • the current government programme

Because there are so many issues competing for attention at the same time, politicians and parties need to decide what to take notice of and what to disregard. They are influenced by different things at different times, and to a greater or lesser extent. The concerns of the public are, to an extent, reflected in the media, and attention is drawn to specific issues. But interestingly, there is also evidence to suggest that the current government programme and the last electoral platform of the successful party have a degree of influence over which issues receive attention in the new election period. As do the long term priorities of government, providing an element of stability around the core issues that feature each election period.

Competition for issues ownership may also occur, where different parties compete to illustrate they have the best solutions to the key issues that matter to the public. Take the example of housing policy at the moment. The housing crisis has clearly made it onto the political agenda and all the main political parties are talking about it and providing what they deem to be the most ‘appropriate’ solutions. You could perhaps argue that some of these ‘solutions’ are not workable, will make little difference and don’t address the root cause of the problem. Indeed, they could be seen as policies aimed at appealing to certain groups of voters, or symbolic policies maybe, that make it look like a party is taking the issue seriously. Or maybe they are just marginal changes that play around the edges of the issue, because actually the problem is just too difficult to cope with (or maybe the real solutions would just be too unpopular). Either way, politicians are taking notice of the issue, even if we are less than convinced by the policies proposed.

Other issues might get onto the political agenda because parties seek to emphasise the issues where their opponents are weak and they are stronger. This selective approach will draw on public concerns but will in addition focus on specific issues that reflect party strengths. This in turn often sees a shift in policy focus from the other parties who seek to respond to the platforms of their rivals. A good example from this election campaign can be seen in relation to the debate about austerity and the need to balance the budget – with Labour and the Conservatives both attempting to convince voters that their plan is best, with perhaps too little to choose between the two!

It’s also well known that public attention (and political attention for that matter) rarely stays focused on one issue for long. Issues, whether they are solved or not, tend to drop off from the public agenda when something more fashionable or interesting comes along. Politicians and parties need to respond to this ever changing cycle and be ready to react and refocus where needed. It’s also true that election campaigns typically focus on a small set of issues. This time, most of the debates I have watched and listened too, have been focused on immigration, welfare cuts and austerity measures, with housing, the NHS and taxation in there somewhere as well. There has been little debate about business or crime, as there was five years ago. The agenda has shifted, slightly.

Within this debate, there is also a discussion about who controls and influences the agenda. Is it the media? Is it the voters? Is it policy elites and powerful individuals/groups? What role do think tanks and experts play? And perhaps more importantly, what notice do the politicians take anyway? Once elected, do they actually deliver on all those promises and policy announcements they made in order to get elected? You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s never quite that simple. All sorts of other things influence what can and can’t be done. The process becomes one of balance between delivery on the party mandate and responding to short-term changes in public concerns, as well as dealing with the emergence of new problems. Alongside that, of course, is the need to be more realistic about what is possible, within time and budget constraints. So the question remains, does politics matter? I’ll leave you to decide!

Back to work – blog summary!

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgSo, a cheeky little post here for those of you who managed to stay off twitter and other social media over the holiday period. I wrote four blogs over christmas and the new year, which you may have missed, so here’s a summary and list to make things easy for you as you ease your way back into work!

  1. Top of the blogs 2014 – a summary of my most popular posts throughout the year. They cover politics, housing, Bristol and economic growth issues, pretty much as you’d expect really. The most read, by a long way, is the one entitled “Time for grown up politics” a plea for a focus on issues rather than personalities!
  2. From practice to academia: a personal conundrum – where I discuss the challenge of trying to think like an academic after so many years out there in practice, using theory as the foundation of thought rather than experience. Not an easy balance to get right.
  3. Top of the blogs: my favourite reads – a collection of the blogs I read regularly, an eclectic mix that covers housing, politics, policy, planning and Bristol. I’d recommend all of them as a good read, informative and interesting.
  4. A housing wish list for 2015 – mischievously subtitled “what I’d do if I was in charge” this is a post about housing, in Bristol mostly, and what I would focus on as a priority if only I had the opportunity to influence things!

So that’s it, you are now up to date with my blog and ramblings over the holiday season. Now it’s back to work, which for me means writing another assignment!

On the blog – what’s popular?

TessaCoombes2I keep meaning to do a regular summary of what’s popular on this blog but only ever seem to manage it intermittently. So here’s a quick post on what you’ve been reading on my blog over the last few months. I’m always amazed that people read my blog – I know that may seem daft given I write it and publish it in a public arena, and that’s the point of doing it. But I do frequently find myself pleasantly surprised that people actually read it and take the time to comment on posts. I have no idea in the blog world what constitutes a good hit rate, numbers of comments or views, but for me the fact that more people seem to be visiting my blog every day is just great. It shows how far my initial idea has progressed from doing a few opinion pieces and staying visible to hopefully providing some slightly more considered posts, as well as rants about issues that irritate me!

Top 5 blog posts in the last 3 months:

Thank you for taking the time to engage with my blog and hope you enjoy my posts, even if you don’t agree with them? Now I’ve signed up to do a further 3 years of full time study in the hope of gaining a PhD, I plan to keep my blog going as an outlet for my thoughts and opinions on housing, planning, cities, politics and Bristol (and whatever else takes my fancy along the way).

Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy?

380451857_ce9bad11e3_zAs party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!

We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.

In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and  where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.

Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?

Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?

Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?

The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!

Blogging for a year – how did that happen?

DSCN0159It’s almost exactly one year since I started this blog. I did so as a response to losing my job and finding I no longer had an outlet for comments, writing and thoughts. Where once it was part of what I did for a living, it now became a hobby, an opportunity to share comments and thoughts on a whole range of different issues, a place to rant and react to things, where I could just be me! A good friend of mine suggested to me at the time that it was important to stay visible and to maintain a profile, so for me that is also part of what blogging is about (seems to work to a point!).

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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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