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.

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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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?

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

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!