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Back after a long hiatus, mostly involving stopping small people falling down steps.

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I’ve recently embarked on the Public Service Launchpad Scholarship programme, which aims to bring people together to work on solutions to public service problems. I believe I’ve identified a problem – or opportunity – and want to use this programme to help me think about solutions.

Would be interested in views and ideas (also working on boiling the below down to a couple of sentences in plain English…)

Seeking to engage communities in decision making around local public services is nothing new, but there are two big reasons why it is now more important than ever. The first and most obvious is budget cuts: with less money to go round it’s all the more important that people are engaged in setting out where their priorities lie. The second is demographic pressures – a high and increasing proportion of local public service budgets are being spent on a small proportion of the population in areas such as adult social care, leading to a situation which is increasingly unsustainable, not just financially but also in terms of people’s trust in public services and local politics.

In this context, engaging communities in shaping local public spending is crucial, yet current examples of such engagement are not bold enough to meet the challenge. Despite some genuinely innovative consultation methods, without a clear illustration of the trade offs at stake and a clear imperative to make a decision one way or another, communities tend to be resistant to all cuts or accept only cuts in those services which they do not access or do not understand.

These are reasons in themselves to improve engagement.  But the urgency, ironically, could be amplified by what happens next in local public services. In the longer term, central Government has a limited set of options to help local public agencies make ends meet. Essentially, they can remove or pare back local government’s statutory duties, find more grant money to plug the gap, or give local areas more autonomy to design, deliver and finance services in new ways. From this set of unpalatable options for Government, increasing local autonomy may well end up as the only viable one.

Government has in fact started to take some tentative steps towards increasing local autonomy. However, the steps taken so far only emphasise the importance of mature and genuine engagement of communities. Initiatives such as Whole Place Community Budgets, as pioneered by the Tri-borough in London and elsewhere, are increasingly moving public services towards early intervention approaches, investing up front to reduce later costs. Yet diverting current spending to programmes that will take several years to pay off, such as early years education and preventative public health, is a hard sell in hard times. City Deals and other aspects of the local growth agenda similarly support local authorities to invest in future prosperity. Whilst eonomic growth is a far easier sell politically, investment in economic development still risks conflicting with current spending on services: economic development is not a statutory service and far harder to explain than bin collections or primary school places. Without genuine public engagement in assessing the costs and benefits of different courses of action and making a decision, the ability of areas to find ambitious solutions to improving people’s lives will be restricted.

Meanwhile, and perhaps more straightforwardly, the kinds of governance arrangements increasingly expected of Local Enterprise Partnerships and city regions by Government – such as combined authorities – are strengthening local autonomy in one sense, but also potentially concentrating local power in fewer hands, with local authority leaders increasingly powerful at the expense of executive members and backbenchers. The  majority of local councillors risk being marginalised, continuing the trend of recent years and reducing communities’ routes to influence decision making.

Longer term, the prospect of more financial autonomy for local government – being pursued for example by the Core Cities and London – raises the stakes and introduces the possibility of a meaningful debate at local level on revenue raising and spending priorities. Yet we cannot take it for granted that public understanding of local public finances, and the trade offs that need to be made, will automatically improve in line with this trend towards more meaningful local choices.

A new approach is needed to ensuring public understanding of and engagement in local public spending decisions. This could reinvigorate the role of ward councillors, help councils maintain reputation and trust in times of austerity and increase public understanding of how local government works. By making clear the scale of the spending challenge in ways that make sense to communities, we could improve understanding of the fact that quality services have to be paid for, potentially encouraging the public support which has so far been largely lacking for innovative community-driven (or, to quote a phrase increasingly receding into nostalgia, ‘big society’) service delivery models.

I would like to collaborate with others on solutions in this area bringing together cost-benefit analysis, as carried out most prominently in this area by New Economy Manchester, and approaches such as participatory budgeting. This could be a commercial venture, open source tool or simply a suggested approach to put forward to local authorities and seek to pilot.

Drop me a line if you’re interested in discussing this!

Eric Pickles’s decision to set up a support fund to help local authorities collect landfill waste once a week has been raising controversy today, and rightly so. It makes a complete mockery of his localist pretensions and, some argue, will put at risk landfill waste reductions that occurred in response to the widespread moves to fortnightly collection – such as this example in Kingston.

There are a few debates to be had. Is Pickles’s project localist or not? (A very short argument: it obviously isn’t). Would weekly collections have negative repercussions? (A slightly longer argument: there are examples on both sides of the debate on whether this would result in more waste going to landfill, but even if not, the cost of returning to weekly bin collections everywhere is quoted at £500m over 4 years by Government-commissioned research). But the tone of this policy announcement and the subsequent debate may well be more important than its content.

Pickles’ first target is councils. His claim that ‘For most people, the only visible service that they get from the council is the removal of refuse’ reinforces the myth that councils take council tax and do practically nothing with it. Firstly, a Secretary of State of a localist government should be drawing attention to the huge range of things that councils spend money on (nicely illustrated by Northamptonshire County Council here for the benefit of their residents) and putting the framework in place for communities to have more of a say on how the money is spent. Secondly, this dog-whistle to the ‘Why should I have to put up with this recycling malarkey, I pay my taxes’ brigade tacitly reinforces the commonly held idea that council taxes are how councils get their funding – which they aren’t. (See page 2 of this Government document for a very clear illustration.) A cheap moment of populism has just put another obstacle between local people and a clear understanding of how Government works, an understanding that is crucial for people to be able to direct their energies to change things they want changed.

Pickles, ludicrously, describes weekly bin collection as a ‘basic right’: absolutist language which stops dissenters dead in their tracks, unable to relate the measure either to Britain’s mounting waste crisis or to the question of what other budgets will have to take the strain of the costly switch to weekly collections. His extension of the idea of every Englishman’s ‘right’ to throw huge amounts of material into a non-existent place called ‘away’ culminates in what he calls the ‘chicken tikka masala test’: the idea that ‘the nation’s favourite meal can be consumed on Friday night safe from the worry that two weeks later its remains will still be rotting in the bottom of the bin’. There’s two beautiful Picklesish moments here for the price of one: the attempt to be jocular and matey by talking about the great British tradition of the takeaway curry, and the complete obliviousness to the fact that most sane people, rather than chucking this culinary treat away, would tend to, y’know, eat it. I’m not sure which is more cringeworthy. What do you reckon? Tell me when you’re done with the cringing. Take your time, I know it might be a while.

Close readings of the nation’s favourite everyman orator aside, though, the hard fact is that this is going to cost money – both directly and, potentially, in increased landfill taxes. That’s fine – services do tend to cost money. But rather than let communities make their own hard choices about how to raise and spend that money, our Government finds £250m down the back of CLG’s sofa and set up a ringfenced fund. It’s the British way.

The debate is narrow to the point of absurdity – cast in terms of ‘Do you want weekly or fortnightly collections?’ rather than asking the real questions: ‘What do you want your local area to be like?’ and ‘What are the different bits that make up that area worth to you’? If there’s £250m available, local communities should be able to decide whether they want to spend that money on weekly bin collections or something that they consider more important: maybe improving schools, or fixing potholes, or keeping libraries open, whatever’s their priority.

“My view is this goes beyond bins – it’s about a question of trust between politicians and the public” says Pickles. Spot on. But trust is hardly going to be engendered by the dispiriting spectacle of councillors pathetically chasing pots of central government funding in an admission of their lack of power and consequence. When a councillor stands up and says ‘We’re having to make cuts in social care because the big bad Government didn’t give us as much money as they used to. But hey – we’re going to be able to bring back your weekly bin collection, thanks to that lovely Mr. Pickles’, you don’t exactly put your faith in their ability to drive positive change in your area.

It’s pretty impressive to manage to infantilise councils, the public and the whole nature of British political discourse with one announcement. “If councils want to have a fortnightly collection and are supported by their populations, then fair enough” says Pickles, sounding reasonable, but the fact remains that there is extra money and warm words for those who comply with his staggeringly irrelevant crusade, and wrath from on high for those that don’t. Artificially rigged, falsely binary ‘choices’, deliberately narrowed ‘policy’ debates and yet more centralism: signs are getting steadily clearer that the ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain‘ has been rescinded.

Please do leave a comment if this interests you. You can also email me or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

https://localismclub.wordpress.com

As you may have noticed, there is a Government consultation out on the selling off of forests currently controlled by the Forestry Commission. I’ve been following the forests debate (and signed the massive petition at 38 Degrees despite slight annoyance at their oversimplification of the issues (I’m not sure anyone is proposing that forests be ‘turned into golf courses and holiday villages’), but not yet been moved to post on here about it as it’s such a clear-cut issue. I’m in favour of local ownership of local assets, but forests aren’t like the local community hall, cooperative shop or waste-to-energy plant: they provide larger-than-local benefits and so should be owned at a larger-than-local level. Sure, it isn’t best practice to have the same body owning assets and also regulating that ownership, but this could be gotten around by creating another QUANGO – if anyone honestly thought it was that big a problem. Even before you discover that the move would result in a net loss to the Exchequer, the argument’s pretty much won.

But when I read my dad’s letter to his local MP on the subject, I wanted to post it here as I think he’s encapsulated the way in which this issue has angered – and mystified – a broader range of people than usual.

To: Stephen Williams MP, Bristol West

Mr Williams,

I am a resident of Bristol West and below are my views on the sale of Forestry Land proposed by your government.

As background, I would like you to know that although I have strong (mainly liberal) opinions on many subjects, I tend to view political policy decisions in a holistic manner. I could have written to you about many Government policies that I disagreed with, for example the government policy on tuition fees which in my opinion is short-sighted, but I give the Government the benefit of the doubt on economic grounds. The point I am trying to make is that I am not a serial activist.

Having heard and read about the proposal to sell and/or lease English Forests I cannot see any economic or environmental justification for the proposed sale. I therefore question the motive behind this proposal. My belief is that the motive is Tory ideology at best or subtle corruption at worst. In terms of public enjoyment of our heritage and the Environment it is likely to be a disaster in the long term. I have spent 30 years building and running a successful business and this experience leads me to believe that greed will undermine other considerations, probably long after you and I have gone. The simple well tested solution is to leave all Forests in public ownership. Let our Tory friends find other ways to satisfy their greed.

Your website is silent on this subject and therefore I wish you to take my view into consideration when representing Bristol West in Government and in Parliament.

As my MP, I urge you to represent my views as best you can. I will continue to oppose this proposal in every way I can.

Regards

Mehboob Neky

Please do leave a comment if this interests you. You can also email me at majeed@cantab.net, find me on Twitter @majeedneky or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/majeedneky.

https://localismclub.wordpress.com

This second in the putative ‘Localism is not…’ series (for the first, see here) was inspired by the lovely people at Spiked-online.com, whose proprietors ludicrously describe themselves as ‘libertarian Marxists’ and which, a bit like chocolate-coated pretzels, is just so wrong that it ends up being quite compelling. Every time I cull the huge number of email newsletters from various organisations that I receive, theirs somehow survives, on a vague principle that I should probably not confine my reading habits to things that I agree with. So I came to see a recent piece which particularly interested me for what I saw as a wilful misinterpretation of the idea that communities could gain benefits from becoming more locally resilient.

The author, Colin McInnes, condemns the idea of local resilience – promoted by the Transition Town movement and many others – from an engineering perspective. One excellent point that he does make, which I feel is very much worth considering, is that “Individuals who purchase a domestic wind turbine can certainly congratulate themselves on their apparent self-sufficiency. However, they are entirely dependent on the international semi-conductor industry for embedded power electronics in the turbine, materials manufacturers for thermo-plastic turbine blades, Chinese miners for neodymium permanent magnets, and the oil industry which fuels the container ship that imports the constituent parts.”

McInnes is, of course, right – and his argument is a compelling reason to safeguard and foster green industry in the UK. His choice of example itself, however, is quite revealing. In an article with ‘localism’ in the title, the only examples of so-called ‘localist’ action that are given are individual actions: growing food in one’s garden, putting a wind turbine on one’s house. McInnes ridicules such actions for what he sees as their impracticality and inefficiency, compared to the ‘hydrocarbon-fuelled machines’ that produce food and energy at giant, economically efficient scales for distribution to individuals via the market mechanism.

McInnes’ evident economic philosophy no doubt leads him to realise two things: people respond to incentives, and negative externalities need to be stopped or paid for. Accepting this can lead to some interesting conclusions. Taking food retail, for example, the incentives framework at the moment favours large supermarkets. Much has been written about the middle-class solipsism of some campaigners who argue against supermarkets, and I would argue that people who care about these issues should avoid painting themselves into a corner by glibly recommending, say, organic local produce without tackling the fact that this is seen as, and often is, more expensive. However, one can also argue that there are negative externalities associated with supermarkets – or, more accurately, with the dominance of supermarkets – which are not currently being paid for, and that if these were to be factored in to prices, the incentives framework could well realign towards a localist approach.

This is all very much up for debate, with the methodology of identifying and quantifying externalities being a matter of considerable controversy for a lot of people far cleverer than I am, and McInnes’ argument can certainly be acknowledged as making sense within its own closed logic. As suggested above, though, what leapt out at me given the title of the Spiked piece was its lack of any concept of a community or a locality – which, for something that purports to be an argument against localism, presents a slight problem. Not many people are seriously suggesting, as McInnes claims they are, that most or many individuals will produce a significant proportion of the food and energy they need within the bounds of their own property through their gardens and roofs. There are three points to consider which I feel lead to a more accurate and positive vision of localism as collective action, rather than simply green lifestyle activism.

The first is the practical idea of economies of scale, which McInnes wrongly seems to assume cannot be achieved outside huge corporate-based activities such as nuclear power stations and factory farms. Considering food, community gardens have the potential to produce far more than individual gardens for a far lower input – the number of people wanting to be involved means that individuals need expend only a few hours a week to see a return, there is far more scope for sharing tools and physical resources, and the positive externalities from skill sharing and the development of social capital, though not necessarily quantifiable, are potentially impressive.

With energy, this argument comes into sharp relief because of the existence of technologies that only make sense at a community level, not an individual or a nationwide level, such as the use of energy generated from waste plants to provide power in the immediate area, or of the excess heat generated by a factory to heat homes. Community ownership of such technology through mutualist schemes can create income-generating community assets – potentially providing just that little bit more money that doesn’t need to come from taxation. So far, so Spiked, surely?

Secondly, it is worth acknowledging that though this sort of activity could substantially reduce the need for a community to import resources, it would hardly be likely to eliminate it. Reducing the need to trade, furthermore, is not the same as reducing the ability to trade. McInnes’ suggestion that communities aiming for self-sufficiency cut themselves off from international trade and leave themselves open to bad weather or crop failures is disingenuous nonsense: given that we do exist in this much-vaunted globalised economy, it escapes me how the opportunity to own part of a community asset with environmental, social and financial benefits would somehow restrict an individual’s ability to buy things.

Thirdly, and closest to my heart, it is a small leap – particularly in the context of the current political discourse – from collective asset ownership to some degree of collective, local civic governance: communities working together, raising and spending local budgets and generally rolling back formal government to an enabling role.

This probably isn’t what the Tea Party mean by smaller government. It certainly isn’t what Spiked seems to mean in its frequent diatribes against the nanny state. Taken to their logical conclusion, such rants always seem to end up handing more power to the equally unrepresentative elites of big business, precisely because – as with Jesse Norman’s critique of the Hobbesian philosophy which as he he sees it has come to dominate politics – their analysis consistently lacks a concept of community. And this need for community is why I am so uneasy about things like individual-level ‘choice’ over schools and hospitals being painted as localism by this and the previous government.

So in reality, maybe community action should be what these people mean when they talk about smaller government. Maybe they could start by campaigning, from a libertarian perspective, for the ideal of a shorter working week to give people back more of their own time to spend however they choose – including in taking an active part in running their communities.

Please do leave a comment if this interests you. You can also email me at majeed@cantab.net, find me on Twitter @majeedneky or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/majeedneky.

https://localismclub.wordpress.com

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