The Social Disinvestment State Unleashed

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Dr Noemi Lendvai-Bainton, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Urban and Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies, discusses the recent Hungarian election and how it reflects the trend towards political populism & the rise of illiberal democracies.

After a very long and rather Kafkaesque election night in Hungary, FIDESZ secured a victory for a third term of governing with a two-thirds majority. After eight years in government, the vote for the radical right in fact increased, with both Fidesz (49% of votes) and Jobbik (a far–right party with 19% of the votes) gaining more votes than four years ago. Tellingly, Orban in his victory speech thanked ethnic Hungarians living abroad (largely dual citizens of Romania, Ukraine and Serbia with voting rights) who ‘defended Hungary’, he thanked his Polish friends and Kaczyński, and he gave thanks for all the prayers (with no end to religious references).

The campaign was a single-issue, emotively hostile and negative campaign, focusing on the migration issue and financier/philanthropist George Soros, that erased public policy as a matter for debate all together – the end of an era when negative campaigns can’t be electorally successful, it seems. A déjà vu of the Brexit campaign in which the migration issue captured the public discourse.

This Hungarian result talks to a lot of different issues. It reflects a deep division between the capital Budapest, where the opposition won by a two-thirds majority, and the ‘country’ (countryside) where Fidesz won almost outright. It reflects on the widespread and significant institutional ‘reforms’ in the country which confidently delivered votes in small towns and in villages through channels of appointed officials, public finances, and EU funds (no need for subtle pressures here – civil servants were asked to take a photo of their ballot papers and email it to a central account; Kindergarten teachers were told to hand out Easter chocolate to parents as a ‘gift’ from Fidesz). The election result also points to the fact that corruption has become normalized – despite unprecedented levels of corruption concerning both EU funds as well as public funds, the government secured its third term.

No longer can one think that populism is a short-term political project. Orban can now thrive on the basis that his legitimacy with a high turn-out (70%) at the election makes him a stronger leader than many of his counterparts in (Western) Europe. His anti-EU rhetoric is expected to intensify in the coming months and years and he is already working hard on building a new transnational coalition against ‘liberal’ Western Europe and to evict all NGOs from the country that have political missions.

Read more…

This article was first published in Social Europe on 19 April 2018.

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No single food or nutrient is to blame for obesity, so what is the right balance?

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Dr Laura Johnson, Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, discusses her new paper in which she assesses the impact of dietary patterns on obesity and how modelling may help influence change in both personal habits and public policy.

No single food or nutrient is to blame for obesity. There so many routes from diet to overeating and weight gain, and in real life foods and nutrients aren’t eaten on their own. So, it’s misleading to look at foods that way in research, it’s the overall balance of diet that matters.

I realised this a while ago when I  used detailed records of food intake from children age 5 and 7 in the ALSPAC cohort to generate an overall diet score that predicted obesity later on. I thought that eating more fat, less fibre, and having a more energy dense diet (more calories in each bite) would all feature in a diet that fuels obesity (or an ‘obesogenic’ diet). I used reduced rank regression or RRR (a pimped up version of factor analysis, see excellent explanation by Andy Field here) to find the best combination of foods to capture differences in the fat, fibre and energy density of the children’s diets. RRR generates a score based on what you eat. It’s calculated by adding up the intake (grams/day) of 42 groups of foods that are weighted for importance and a higher score means your diet is more obesogenic. I showed that children with the highest pattern score at age 7 were 4 times more likely to have too much fat by the time they were 9 years old (other researchers have since seen similar associations in adolescence and adulthood).

A pretty strong result, right? But, what use is a score made up of 42 foods? Isn’t it too complicated to ever be the basis for changing behaviour? I don’t think so, not if we use computers to deal with the complex calculations. All we need to know is what foods have been eaten (by individuals or populations) and then the obesogenic score can be computed automatically. We would then have a single score indicating whether the overall balance of your diet (or the Nation’s diet if thinking in policy terms) is more or less obesogenic. A total diet score would be better than current measures which only focus on fruits and vegetables or sugar-sweetened drinks, which let’s be honest, no one believes are going to solve the obesity epidemic on their own!

In our latest paper we asked “Do the same foods make up an obesogenic diet regardless of whether you are young or old, boy or girl, rich or poor?” (Because the ALSPAC score might only matter to children living in Bristol in the late ‘90s) “Who in the UK has a more obesogenic diet?” (Because those people need the most help to change) and “Are diets getting more obesogenic over time?” (Because that might suggest national obesity policy isn’t working).

To find some answers we used diet diaries from nearly 10,000 adults and children taking part in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey between 2008 and 2014. We repeated the RRR in different groups and found it was remarkably stable – the same foods came out as most important to an obesogenic diet over and over again. So, we can feel confident that the obesogenic pattern score and that way foods are weighted by importance reflects the way everyone eats in the UK today. The most and least obesogenic foods we found were (sized and in order of importance):

In terms of whose diets are most imbalanced we found massive social gradients with those in manual jobs and households earning less than £15,000/year having the most obesogenic diets, which mirrors social inequalities in obesity prevalence. Among children, diets became more obesogenic between 2011 and 2014. Among adults a more obesogenic diet went hand in hand with more time spent watching shows on TV/Laptops/Tablets, less physical activity, and eating takeaways more frequently.

All these trends are a starting point for targeting and testing interventions designed to make small changes across a range of foods to shift the balance of diet. By using our score, it could be possible to gauge how multiple changes to policy or what we eat adds up to a less obesogenic diet and with luck prevent obesity in future.

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Shaping successful smart cities

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Professor Alex Marsh, Head of the Centre for Urban and Policy Studies (School for Policy Studies) and Co-Investigator for the ESRC/AHRC/JRF Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, responds to the report produced by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities.

Last month the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smart Cities launched a report entitled Top Tips for City Mayors. The report collated tips provided by members of the group offering key insights, priorities and issues to consider when approaching Smart City development, policy and practice. The APPG report offers more than 50 tips provided by 17 member organisations.

Stephen Hilton and I have taken a look at the tips presented in the report and provided an overview of its key messages. We take the opportunity reflect on some of the points made in the report, note some of the tensions, and highlight issues that deserve greater attention. This analysis is available in our own report: Shaping successful smart cities.

Quite a lot of the Smart City conversation can get bogged down in the digital technologies quite quickly. One of the APPG report’s headline messages is that the Tipsters give a much higher profile to citizens – focus on how smart technologies can meet needs and deliver benefits. The report thus aligns with the more citizen-centred approach that is very much at the centre of Smart City debate right now.

Stephen and I summarize the key messages from the APPG report under five headings: citizens; resources to do the job; priorities for action; data; and partnerships. We then give a flavour for the sorts of arguments being made by the Tipsters under each heading. Download our report to find out more.

In our subsequent reflections we highlight a number of issues that the APPG report does not dwell on but which, in our view, are absolutely vital.

We note that while the rhetoric of the Smart City has embraced the importance of citizens that is not the same as ensuring that citizens are meaningfully involved in practice. Plenty of effort will be needed to make ‘citizen-centred’ development a reality rather than a slogan.

The issues of leadership and governance of the Smart City are increasingly recognised as important, but there is much hard thinking still to do about effective leadership styles and appropriate governance structures and processes.

Smart City approaches are pursued at local level for a variety of reasons: embracing digital is perceived to offer a diverse range of potential benefits. Local smart city policy often has a mix of objectives. Yet these objectives are not necessarily entirely complementary. Hence, we would argue the potential for conflicting priorities needs to be acknowledged and managed.

There is currently much advocacy in favour of Smart City approaches. There is, we submit, an element of hype and hyperbole. The benefits claimed for such approaches run quite a long way ahead of the benefits that have so far been demonstrated. As one Tipster observed, “most potential applications are not yet commercially proven”. That doesn’t mean that benefits are not there to be derived from smart. But it is important to look beyond the hype to probe the when, how and for whom value will be generated. Similarly, there are hard questions to be asked about sustainable business models: who is going to be paying to keep infrastructure and services operational?

Finally, privacy and security are a key component of public debate about our digitally-saturated world. They are equally important in thinking about the Smart City. Applications typically make use of big and open data, which can be gathered from sensors or captured as a byproduct of citizens’ day-to-day online activities. How to we ensure our uses of such data are viewed as legitimate? And how can we ensure that Smart City infrastructures and the data derived from them are secure?

These are not necessarily new questions, and they are not questions to which are no answers. But they need to be kept front and centre of the Smart City conversation.

The APPG Top Tips report offers a quick route to gaining a flavour of current thinking on the Smart City. Our message is to that we need to make sure we keep out eyes on some broader issues of fundamental importance, alongside the specifics of how smart might be put to work for the benefit of citizens.

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Policy makers do not need to introduce formal structures to achieve political innovation

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Drawing on a case study of English Devolution in the UK, Dr Sarah Ayres, Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research, examines the role played by ‘informal governance’ in shaping political innovation.

Informal governance can be defined as a means of decision-making that is un-codified, non-institutional and where social relationships play crucial roles. Research evidence suggests that an analysis of informal governance is essential if we are to fully understand how political innovation occurs.

The issue of informality in policy-making is particularly timely as public managers seek to manage multifaceted policy problems within contested and uncertain environments. One view is that political decision-making has increasingly moved away from the national level of government to a more spatially diverse, temporal and fluid set of arrangements. From this perspective, policy-making is increasingly taking place in arenas where there is no generally accepted rules and norms according to which politics is to be conducted. Some argue that it is the surge of ‘wicked problems’ that have prompted this type of leadership, as multiple actors come together to solve complex policy problems. These developments raise important questions about how informal governance operates in this transforming policy landscape and the impact it has on political innovation. Yet, there is comparatively little research on the role of informality in policy-making, partly because of the complexity of studying it.

The case of English devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between formal and informal policy making. In the case of English devolution, evidence confirms that informal governance has created an ‘innovative space’ to explore new possibilities and develop trust between critical actors. Elected politicians had a pivotal role in creating an ‘innovative space’ for senior administrators to develop new high trust relationships and working practices. Back stage, administrators were using informal governance to (re)configure institutional arrangements.

Evidence also confirms that informal governance was used to enhance the autonomy and discretion of administrators, leading to an ‘innovative oriented culture’. This shaped both the intention to be innovative and the creation of a permissive environment for change. Informal governance was used by a closely-knit group of well positioned and highly skilled boundary spanners who were motivated to use it in pursuit of securing government objectives. It was used as a tool to break deadlocks, promote political momentum and complement a weak formal bureaucracy. The ‘formalisation’ of informal working at critical points was utilised to secure political innovations that had traction.

Finally, research data confirmed that informal governance led to more responsive problem solving and a shared commitment to new policy goals. Central-local relationships were viewed as more collaborative and there was enhanced diversity and creativity in local policy outcomes. However, while informal working was viewed as a route to policy innovation, some respondents acknowledged the negative impacts regards transparency and accountability. Whitehall officials could be accused of using soft power to enforce the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ in nebulous ways, thus undermining the ability of local actors to secure real influence.

This research tells us that when formal structures and procedures are weak, political innovation can still thrive. Indeed, operating ‘back stage’ offers a number of distinct advantages for political innovation, although these must be mitigated against the pitfalls associated with increased informality if policy effectiveness is to be achieved without undermining democratic legitimacy.

This post is taken from a recent article by Dr Sarah Ayres entitled ‘Assessing the impact of informal governance on political innovation’ published in Public Management Review. This was written as part of a Special Issue on ‘Political Innovation’ and edited by Professor Eva Sorensen (Roskilde University, Denmark).

Dr Sarah Ayres has also co-edited a number of other reports on the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities, including ‘Policy-making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage: Assessing the implications for effectiveness and democracy’ and ‘Territory, Power, Statecraft: Understanding English Devolution’.

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Corruption research: Hunting for glimmers of light in the gloom

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Dr Caryn Peiffer, Lecturer in International Public Policy and Governance in the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research, and her colleague Rosita Armytage of the University of Birmingham reflect on findings from their current project Islands of Integrity.

In most countries that struggle with endemic corruption, discussion of corruption is everywhere. It dominates national newspapers and is the subject of political infighting and point-scoring between politicians. Corruption scandals and allegations are discussed in family homes, social gatherings, and on street corners. Strong opinions and rumours are easy to come by.

But the challenge for researchers is to find people who can shed objective light on where and why it happens. Corruption is located ‘elsewhere’ – always attributed to other sectors, organisations, units, or individuals. For obvious reasons, few will admit their own involvement.

We thought we would have better luck focusing on anticorruption success stories. If people are generally willing to join in a conversation about corruption but reluctant to blame or attribute responsibility, we thought – perhaps naively – that it might be easier to start a discussion about what is going right. Not so.

We have just completed the second phase of our Islands of Integrity research project. In the first phase we scrutinised data from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer and statistically identified potential anticorruption success stories. These are sectors within countries – whether the courts, education, or healthcare, for instance – where the data show a significant reduction in bribery, despite static or rising levels of bribery in all other sectors. In the second phase we have contacted people familiar with each of our potential cases in an effort to vet a handful of these apparent success stories to assess whether they are likely to represent a real reduction in bribery on the ground.

The third phase will focus in depth on whether and how bribery reduction was achieved. In the process of narrowing down to two cases for this fieldwork phase, we’ve had some surprising reactions from a handful of in-country experts.

For a start, most people we talk to are adamant that things are just as corrupt now as they ever have been, regardless of what the data might appear to say. Sectoral experts (NGO officers, advocacy experts, practitioners, academics, and specialists such as criminologists) in almost all the countries our project has looked at have expressed significant reluctance to discuss or even examine data which might suggest that there has been a reduction in bribery in their sector.

Many of those who have been willing to look at what the data suggest have pulled no punches about how suspicious they are of its validity and statistical soundness. Some have refused point-blank to discuss what factors might have been at play during any given period when there was an apparent reduction in corruption. And some, of course, simply didn’t reply. Why, we find ourselves wondering, is it so hard to get a conversation going with the people who might know what really works – and why – in the fight against corruption?

What might all this hesitancy be about? Some clues have been offered by our more communicative (though no less sceptical) respondents. We discovered, for instance, that if we were very clear that our data might only be detecting temporary reductions in corruption, and didn’t necessarily suggest that these improvements had continued or were ongoing, some of our respondents were more willing to get involved and investigate further.

Critically, as other correspondents pointed out, the sectors we are looking at – ranging from land use and health services to policing – are often the focus of intense political contestation. For police forces in particular – our focus in three of the countries we considered – there is the real danger that data that indicate even a temporary improvement might be appropriated to neutralise anti-corruption work. It might be commandeered for public relations efforts by incumbent administrations, or by anyone with a vested interest in prolonging and sustaining corrupt practices.

We wonder if all this adds up to a kind of pessimism. Perhaps experts who feel that there is still a long, long way to go on the anti-corruption trail find it hard to recognise even small or temporary improvements, particularly where apparent shifts are marooned in a sea of nationwide and worsening corruption.

Of course, it is also possible – as one of our most vehement correspondents has told us – that nothing has changed and our data is deceiving us. It may be that the success we think we have identified is an illusion created by poor data, and statistical outliers are, of course, notoriously clouded in this type of suspicion. But it may also be that those fighting corruption on the ground are fearful that any stories about corruption reduction will undermine the urgency of their work and erode the political will to combat the very serious corruption that still remains.

Some pertinent questions have recently been asked by Duncan Green about how the anti-corruption movement can sharpen up its act. But it turns out that researching corruption is almost as challenging as reducing it. And researching success can be particularly politically challenging. Seeking to locate improvements in contexts of ever-worsening official abuses of power can easily appear foolhardy, naive, or downright counterproductive. As researchers, we must consciously balance the need to find out what works in the fight against corruption with the imperative to do no harm.

Nevertheless, we will continue to investigate these glimmers and gleams of apparent improvement further. If we do discover some small – even if only temporary – improvement in one location, it might provide a clue to the circumstances, policies, or politics that can reduce corruption in other contexts too.

This post is cross-posted from the DLP blog (posted 25/07/17).

(Image: Darkday via flickr under Creative Commons)

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The Bristol City Office

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Tessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger considers the new plans for the City office and the impact this will have on the way Bristol is governed and the people who govern it.

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Marvin Rees addressing his new office. (Image courtesy of Tesssa Coombes)

There’s a new approach to partnership working being proposed in Bristol.

Living as we do in the most centralised state in the western world, many different approaches have been taken over the years to try and break down barriers, grab additional local power and move away from the silo thinking that dominates our political and administrative systems. However, few of these have managed to make any significant difference to policy and decision making at a sub national and local level.

Recent years have seen more debate about devolution, leadership and collaborative governance. This has manifested itself in discussions around ‘place-based leadership and power’ where different ways of working are being identified to address the challenges faced by localities. There’s also been a change to the way some cities are governed, with the introduction of directly elected mayors providing clear, accountable local leadership with enhanced powers.

Robin Hambleton in his book “Leading the Inclusive City” (2015) sets a conceptual framework that identifies five intersecting realms of leadership: political leadership, public managerial/professional leadership, trade union leadership, business leadership, and community leadership. He suggests that where these realms overlap we create innovation zones where more creative and inventive behaviour takes place, particularly where it can be focused on aspects of unified action.

It is this very concept that is about to be tried in Bristol through the creation of a City Office. It’s an idea that seeks to address some of the challenges faced by the public sector, with ever decreasing budgets and reducing powers. It is about partnership and collaborative governance, bringing organisations, individuals and budgets together to tackle the issues that we have failed to tackle before, where collaboration and joint working are essential, alongside the willingness to be creative and innovative.

Whilst there have been many partnerships developed over the years in Bristol, some that have worked, others that have been less successful, somehow this new partnership feels different. Perhaps the increasingly challenging context for change is one reason why it feels different this time. With a new form of governance in the city, a directly elected mayor who can lead with greater power and greater visibility, maybe there is now the direction and clarity the city has needed to make this work.

There is also the ‘shadow of austerity’ across the whole of the public sector and local government in particular. The council in Bristol once again faces severe cuts that mean its ability to do anything beyond deliver on statutory services is significantly reduced. That in itself is a big restraint, when you are facing big problems in the city that cannot be solved without significant time, effort and resource. Yet, there is a history of partnership working in the city that has successfully delivered change, with business, public and voluntary/community sectors coming together to make things happen.

Bringing these elements together, in a new partnership approach, could provide the impetus needed to make a difference.

The idea is to enable the city to develop solutions to the issue that matter most, issues that to date we have failed to adequately address. It is also about learning, experimenting and innovating, about not being too afraid of failure and being brave enough to take risks in order to find that set of solutions that do work. The city office is unique in its aim of changing the way we do things, by working together and applying collective resources to the challenges we face, by taking a truly ‘total place’ approach to city development.

It will operate at both a strategic and tactical level, bringing organisations together on project activities that deliver in the short and medium term as well as focusing on creating a shared vision for the future. The concept of additionally is critical, all the projects and activity of the city office need to bring with them the ability to provide something extra as a result of working together.

In addition to the project activity, the Mayor introduced the idea of a ‘Single Plan for Bristol‘, a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city, in a similar vein to the OneNYC Plan. A bold idea that has the potential to really make a difference to the key challenges we face as a city. This is where the city office can bring people and organisations together to work collaboratively to set out a long-term simple but ambitious vision with measurable and achievable short and medium term targets. It should be about addressing the root causes of problems and providing sustainable solutions, and not ducking the difficult issues. It is also where we can set out how we address the ‘big’ issues, like how we eradicate inequality and poverty in our city, providing something that everyone should be able to sign up to.

There’s a long way to go on developing the city office and this new approach to ‘place-based leadership’ but so far the signs are positive and the potential is definitely there to influence and create change.

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Are we really witnessing a great ‘devolution deception’?

Ben-HarrisonjpgAs part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science, a debate took place in Bristol on 9/11/15 on the impacts of directly elected mayors on cities, including contributions from Baroness Barbara Janke, former Leader of Bristol City Council and Member of the House of Lords, Thom Oliver, Political Scientist, UWE, David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol, and Ben Harrison, Centre for Cities.  A lively debate included reference to George Osborne’s plans for cities and city regions, and particularly whether we are witnessing a ‘devolution deception’.

Here, Ben Harrison argues the case against such an interpretation. 

To dismiss the Government’s devolution agenda simply as a “deception” is to opt out of a debate at the very time that real change is finally possible.

I was recently in Bristol earlier this week speaking about the merits of directly elected mayors, when I heard a familiar refrain during the audience Q and A. Far from being a significant redistribution of power from the central state to local areas, the Government’s entire devolution agenda, the attendee said, was nothing more than a “devolution deception”.

This is far from the only time I’ve heard this kind of critique put forward, not least from the national Labour party and its new leader, and earlier this week from the leader of the Liberal Democrats. But does it really stack up – is the Government really deceiving people when it comes to its intentions on devolution?

Let’s examine the biggest concerns that tend to underpin claims that devolution is but a fig leaf for other, hidden policy agendas.

  1. The Cities Bill does not specifically commit the Government to provide any additional powers to local government

A key part of the parliamentary opposition to the Government’s agenda has been that despite the rhetoric, the Devolution Bill does not identify a list of specific policies that will be devolved to a specific set of places, and therefore it won’t allow for the devolution of anything at all.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The Bill is a deliberately generic and enabling piece of legislation that essentially allows for the devolution of almost anything – housing, health, welfare, policing and more – to a local level, and allows for different settlements to be reached in different places depending on local appetite and capacity. The only limit on devolution under the model will be the willingness and ability of local and national politicians to reach agreement on what will be included. And of course the experience in London, where the powers of the GLA has grown significantly since the turn of the century, suggests this picture can and will change over time.

  1. The Government is driving this process from the top down

Yet despite the potential expansiveness of what is on offer, many still struggle to equate the current policy process with devolution because they see the Government setting the agenda and criteria for what will or won’t be devolved within the framework set by the Bill. If it’s a ‘top down process’, how could it possibly be devolution?

The major factor that has led to the current round of city-region deals, featuring more substantial devolution than previous attempts to decentralise, has been the active involvement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne has had to deploy his own substantial political capital to set clear criteria that must be met to achieve devolution, and most critically, in order to prise control away from Whitehall departments (including the Treasury) who instinctively look to control and constrain any moves to push power down from the centre.

That’s why it is not contradictory for the process of decentralisation to be set out and driven from the centre – in fact, in a country where central Government holds almost all the power, it is necessary if we are to see tangible progress made. In 21st Century Britain, the dominance of Whitehall departments, coupled with the lack of power held by UK cities, means that only the authority of the highest offices in the land can drive the devolution of real power to cities and city-regions across the country.

  1. The process has taken place entirely behind closed doors with no public scrutiny

A separate concern relates to the lack of transparency that has characterised the deals currently being negotiated between the Government and city-regions. Unlike in previous rounds of city and growth deals, proposals have not always been made public, and with goalposts shifting, councils have struggled to communicate to their communities and colleagues in the private sector what devolution will mean for their place.

These concerns are understandable and should be addressed as a priority in the months to come – indeed already places are engaging in more detailed consultations on new arrangements for their places. But it is also important to recognise that these deals are being negotiated by politicians at a national level with a manifesto commitment to do so, and locally elected politicians with a mandate to represent the interests of their constituents. Equally, while other approaches may have been possible, the reasons why the process has to date been undertaken in this way are also understandable.

The Government has deliberately eschewed setting out a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to devolution, and has encouraged places to come forward with their own proposals in time for them to be implemented during the coming Parliament. Agreeing these proposals requires political compromise and a willingness to take on, share, and give up different powers and responsibilities. The political reality is that these are often difficult and uncertain conversations that benefit from a degree of privacy, to allow for more honest and frank conversations to take place. It would be much harder, if not impossible, to conduct these negotiations in public.

  1. This isn’t about the devolution of power, but the devolution of budget cuts

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in terms of an accusation that the Government has a “hidden agenda” when it comes to devolution, is the issue of cuts to local government budgets. Many believe that the Chancellor is in essence giving a little with one hand, but taking dramatically more with the other, while leaving councils with the responsibility to deal with the consequences for public services.

There can be no doubt that local government has undergone significant resource reductions since 2010, and as we heard from the Chancellor this week, there will be more pain for the sector to come in this Parliament. Observers are right to suggest such moves signal a concerted effort to change the size and scope of the state, and that doing so raises profound questions regarding the future of public service provision. But to suggest this is some kind of hidden agenda is, I think, misjudged.

Firstly, the Chancellor advertises his ‘austerity credentials’ proudly – they are a key part of his own personal brand and no one can have been surprised that the forthcoming Spending Review will feature more cuts. Secondly, whether one agrees with the ambition or not (and many do not), I think the Chancellor sees devolution as a necessary and complementary factor required to deliver a smaller state. The thinking here is, yes budgets will be dramatically smaller in the future, but the ability of (and imperative on) local leaders to drive efficiencies and new models of public service provision will be enhanced. Of course this is a political and financial judgement, and the merits of it can and will be contested, but on the Chancellor’s terms at least, devolution is not a distraction from austerity, but actually goes hand in hand with it.

It is to be expected that many are suspicious of the impact devolution will have across the country, and that many remain sceptical regarding the Government’s commitment to truly give power away. We have, after all, been here many times before, and failed to see control wrestled away from the central state. Equally, given the scale of public spending cuts planned, concerns regarding the future provision of public services are also understandable.

Yet to dismiss the Government’s devolution agenda simply as a “deception” is to opt out of a debate at the very time that real change is finally possible. It’s true that the prizes on offer today may seem modest, particularly when compared to the kinds of powers wielded by cities in Europe or America. But after decades of centralisation, the real questions those with doubts about the current agenda should be asking is how can we make sure that the incremental reform that is on the table today is delivered; how do we ensure that places do have greater ability to shape the way in which the forthcoming cuts affect them; and how do we ensure that, bolstered by newly established city-region leadership across the country, the devolution deals of 2015 mark the beginning of the story, not the end.

This was first posted on the Centre for Cities blog.

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Finance, housing and the ageing population

Alex Marsh, Professor of Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies urges a systematic, urgent, and holistic approach to thinking through issues related to housing, care, and ageingAlex Marsh

When we think about the financial aspects of housing, care and ageing it is essential to approach the issues holistically and to embed our understanding of the housing system in broader developments across a range of policy areas. These include developments in education policy affecting student debt levels, responses to changes in the labour market, pensions policy, social security policy, and broader macroeconomy policy. Earlier this year, for example, the FT reported on some ECB analysis arguing that Eurozone quantitative easing was responsible for fueling housing market bubbles in a number of countries (paywall), including the UK.

Policy in all these areas — and more — is reflected in the way in which the housing market behaves. And the way in which the housing market behaves is, in turn, reflected back into these other policy areas. Holding on to these interconnections is crucial.

Some would argue that the UK housing system is fundamentally broken. Others wouldn’t want to go quite that far. But many would agree that the system is decidedly unwell. The recent Foresight report by Michael Edwards rightly argues that we need to recognize that the problems are multidimensional and the solution therefore needs to be multi-faceted. We face acute short-term p
roblems triggered by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) layered on top of long-term problems generated by the unique combination of characteristics of UK housing market and Westminster housing policy. Continue reading

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Mayors at a gallop: the national influence of local leaders

In collaboration with the Institute for Government and the University of the West of England, researchers at the School for Policy Studies hosted a debate featuring the directly elected mayors of Bristol and Leicester. Tom Gash, from the Institute gives his thoughts on the debate in a post that was first published on the Institute’s blog.  Tom Gash-136

Elected in 2011 and 2012 respectively, George Ferguson (Bristol) and Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester) have been working hard to show what mayors can do for our cities. At a recent event hosted at the Institute for Government, Tom Gash heard them raise two questions that any government after May 2015 will have to answer. Should we have more mayors? And should they have more powers?

Elected mayors were first established in England following the election of the Mayor of London in 2000. Later that year the Local Government Act paved the way for votes to set up mayors in a number of other local authorities. Eleven more mayors had been introduced by 2002. The Coalition gave the model another push in 2010 but voters in nine English cities rejected the idea in another series of referendums in 2012. There were yes votes in Bristol and Salford, however, and Leicester and Liverpool have adopted the model. Ferguson was elected as an independent for the job in Bristol. Soulsby got the job in Leicester after giving up his seat as Labour MP for Leicester South.

Sir Peter Soulsby and George Ferguson

George Ferguson and Sir Peter Soulsby speaking at the event

At the event Ferguson and Soulsby were persuasive, passionate advocates for the extra power mayors can wield. Soulsby described the extra influence he’d acquired since stepping down as an MP. “I haven’t missed the life in Westminster,” he said. “Now I’ve got a proper job.” Ferguson spoke with infectious energy about his passion for raising Bristol’s profile and attracting investment.

Both have gained national recognition since taking on the mayoral role. Ferguson’s trade-mark red trousers are recognised well beyond Bristol’s boundaries, and he has quickly gained a national profile that no council leader in the city has previously enjoyed. Soulsby may not have the red trousers, but that didn’t stop him being accosted on his way to the event by a man wanting to thank him for his work in the city. “I was council leader for 17 years,” he said, and “no one said that”. They didn’t in his six years as MP, either.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are less complimentary, but there is no doubt that mayors enjoy greater public recognition than council leaders. According to Dr David Sweeting of the University of Bristol and Professor Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England, who are conducting research on the impact of the mayoral model, polls show that the proportion of Bristol residents who say that the city has visible leadership has grown from 24% to 69% since Ferguson took charge.

For Soulsby, the key difference between mayors and council leaders lies in their accountability. He outlined how council leaders were elected. “You don’t win it on the doorstep; you don’t win it on the pages of the Leicester Mercury… you win it by getting the support of your fellow councillors,” he said. He then held up a copy of a local newspaper. Its headline, referring to recent gridlock on the city’s roads, asked ‘who’s to blame?’ The question was a direct challenge to Soulsby, the mayor, to find out who should be held to account. Soulsby said that this accountability to the public had led to greater ambition. There had been, he said, a “whole load of risks I am able to take that I wasn’t able to take as a council leader”.

Ferguson pointed to the ability of mayors to act as a figurehead to attract investment. “You don’t invest in people you don’t know…we don’t have very good football teams [in Bristol] so we have to do it another way,” he said. And Soulsby said he enjoys far better access to secretaries of state than he had as an MP. As mayor he can also convene local public service leaders to sort out problems requiring co-ordination. Certainly, the two mayors’ belief in the power of the model chimes with previous Institute for Government research.

But it’s clear that not everyone is enamoured with the model. Ferguson, as an independent mayor, has had to overcome considerable resistance to the model from councillors who resent a perceived reduction in their powers – or in some cases simply dislike his policies. Much opposition has been “very civilised”, he said, but some “unbelievably vicious”. Soulsby spoke of his difficult relationship with Leicestershire’s Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, Sir Clive Loader. In response to questions, Ferguson reflected openly on some early mistakes in his stance towards councillors – in particular, referring to scrutiny by councillors as a “medieval process”.

However, he now feels he has built stronger, more collaborative relationships. Ferguson’s Cabinet of five councillors comes from four different parties, and Ferguson said he “couldn’t do the job without them”. He is also looking into how he can empower councillors in the city’s 14 neighbourhood partnerships. Soulsby claimed that scrutiny has become “very much more healthy… and effective” in Leicester since the change of model. Both agreed that the introduction of mayors does require a rethinking of the councillor’s role but did not believe that it would become less attractive in future. Soulsby spoke of “really quite good” candidates still coming forward for election in Leicester’s 2015 local elections.

The audience’s questions were mainly focused on the future. Some questions related to how the model of cities could be improved. Here, both mayors wholeheartedly supported the idea of greater proportional representation in local elections. Soulsby was clear that such a system would dramatically reduce his party’s power in Leicester but still believes the system would be far more functional.

Other questions focused on how cities could win further powers from Whitehall and Westminster and how the next government should think about and support city-regional government in England after May 2015. Ferguson pointed to his work bringing together Bristol with three neighbouring councils: “We call it CUBA… the County that Used to Be Avon.” He argued that the area is ready to take on transport powers similar to Greater London. Ferguson also appears to hope that walking the walk will accelerate devolution to the region. “I travel a lot,” he said, “and when I’m abroad I’m mayor of the city region” – not just selling Bristol, but Somerset and other neighbouring areas too. Soulsby wants local government to take on responsibilities from police and crime commissioners too. “I’m not quite sure what they’re meant to do,” he said. Both pointed to Greater Manchester, recent recipient of these powers as well as control of health, as the example to emulate in the next parliament.

They freely admit, however, that – though all parties have promised to devolve further after the election – no one knows what will happen next. Ferguson said further devolution to cities is “not inevitable” – a sensible view given broken promises in the past. And both recognised that gaining further powers is no more important than doing well with the powers they already have.

After all, come May 7, Peter Soulsby will face Leicester’s verdict on his first term as mayor. George Ferguson has a year longer to wait for the electorate’s judgement. And both may wait longer still to find out whether the mayoral model about which they are so passionate grows stronger and expands across England.

Further information
The event was hosted by the Institute for Government, the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.
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Informing the debate on directly elected mayors

David-SweetingDavid Sweeting

Recently George Osborne announced the creation of a ‘metro-mayor’ for Greater Manchester. In doing so he has joined a long line of heavyweight politicians who have endorsed the idea of directly elected mayors as at least part of the solution to issues in urban governance in English cities. From as far back as Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s, via Tony Blair, and through David Cameron the idea of a single figure to govern our cities has resonated strongly in Whitehall. In the press release on Manchester’s metro-mayor, Osborne is quoted as saying: ‘This will give Mancunians a powerful voice and bring practical improvements for local people, with better transport links, an Oyster-style travelcard, and more investment in skills and the city’s economy.’ The prospect of other cities introducing similar figures is clearly back on the agenda – whether on existing city boundaries or across a city-region.

One of the frustrations in the debate around directly elected mayors is the lack of empirical evidence around which to base judgements on their impact. Competing camps tend to paint over-idealised or over-pessimistic scenarios, depending on the position they wish to advocate. The pro-camp points towards the creation of a powerful central focus for urban governance. A leader of place rather than the council, this figure increases interest in civic affairs and is able to use their profile for the good of their areas, joining up diverse interests, and is firmly held to account at the ballot box every four years. The anti-camp tends to warn of the dangers of centralisation, with a directly elected mayor able to have free rein over the electoral cycle, yet with no reason to suppose that this figure is better able to work with diverse interests than traditional council leaders in their areas, often with concerns about the ‘wrong’ sort of person being elected.

In 2012 Bristol introduced a directly elected mayor, based on the city council area of Bristol. The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is analysing the introduction of the new system, drawing on empirical data from before and after its institution, both from members of the public in Bristol, and from different sectors involved in the governance of the city. We have reported our most recent analysis in our Policy Briefing, published via Policy Bristol.

Here I discuss two findings that are likely to be of interest in the debate around the introduction of mayors in other cities. The first is that there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of citizens who agree with the statement ‘the city of Bristol has visible leadership’. It has risen from 24.1% in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, to 68.6% in 2014. This is a startling rise, and provides a boost to those who argued for the introduction of a mayor in Bristol on the basis that existing city leadership lacked sufficient public profile. The second is that there are very different views on the introduction of the mayor in different sectors of governance in the city. Our survey of civic leaders in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, found that, on the whole, councillors were much less positive about the introduction of a mayor than other respondents from the public, private, and third sectors in the city. This is significant because directly elected mayors are often advocated on the basis that they will facilitate positive relationships across the city beyond the council chamber. Our research suggests that this may well be the case, but there clearly would be work to be done to convince councillors of the benefits of the system.

Our project in Bristol is ongoing, and in future we will be able to report a much larger, more rounded set of results. As we have data from both before and after the introduction of the mayoral system in the city, our work is well placed to shine light on claims about profile and visibility, or relationships between sectors, as a result of changing the system of governance, as reported above. Of course, there are limits to these claims, both as a result of methods used, and as a result of the complex nature of urban governance. For example, survey research is not sophisticated enough to disentangle the impact of the change in governance system and the change in political leader. There are also limits to the transferability of these results beyond the Bristol context. In relation to ‘metro-mayors’, for example, there is the issue that the mayoral system in Bristol was introduced on existing city boundaries, whereas, for example, the Manchester proposals are across the sub-region. This inevitably adds a layer of complexity when establishing new governance structures that are both effective and democratic. We nevertheless hope that other cities considering a variant of the directly elected mayor model of decision-making will find these results very useful in thinking through the consequences of introducing mayoral governance in their cities.

David is Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is being carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol, and the University of the West of England, Bristol, and has benefitted from ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funding.

This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

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