2016: Revolution, chaos, death and re-birth

At the end of one of the most challenging years for the UK, five commentators sum up the year for communities, local government, economic development, devolution and activism and offer their views on the way forward.

Let there be hope

By David Robinson

Community Links

‘So this is Christmas, what have we done?’

We entered 2016 with business leaders predicting economic recovery but with austerity still pounding through the public realm, with local authorities particularly in our most hard pressed areas confronting impossible choices and anticipating imminent crises for social care and other essential services, with further deep cuts in the voluntary sector, closures and redundancies almost inevitable and with more evident and abject poverty than at any time in my working life.

Then it got worse. 7 million people in the UK are now officially poor despite being part of a working family. Even the governor of the Bank of England talks about the ‘growing sense of isolation and detachment and ‘the first lost decade since the 1860s’. He may be overstating the good news.

According to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, we are living through the worst period for real earnings growth since the Napoleonic Wars. Here in the Olympic borough of Newham, 34% of the borough’s residents now earn less than the living wage – an increase of 10% since 2010 despite exceptional investment and development. Remember when we thought that food banks were for another country and another time?

The numbers are grim but the shift in attitudes is worse. Late last night I bought paracetamol at the little shop down the road. ‘39 years in the UK and I’ve never had a cold’, said the owner. I hoped she wouldn’t catch mine. ‘No chance.’ she said, ‘even the germs in London don’t like us now’.

Thirty-nine years, the living embodiment of contributing citizens and a hard working family and ‘even the germs don’t like us now’. The creeping acceptance that it is okay to discriminate and openly despise may not yet be a crisis but the ‘bend to justice’ in Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe has swerved wildly and worryingly in the UK and across the world.

‘Another year over, a new one just begun’

I understand why friends tell me that they turn off the TV news. Lately I’ve started to do that too and it scares me more than anything. We have work to do and, difficult though it may seem to be, we must embrace the New Year as another chance, a chance to rediscover hope. Here’s how:

1. You have your special power, use it:

Building a more connected, humane and supportive society isn’t just about money or organisations or governments or global movements. In fact it mainly isn’t. People change lives, one to one, and we can all do that today, person to person, from where we are with what we’ve got. Social isolation and the consequential fear, distrust and misery is a modern epidemic but one that we can personally attack. It is our special power. Do the human things that only you can do.

2. Organise in new ways:

Charities are important but not necessarily the same organisational structures in the same configurations as we have today. Community Links, the organisation with which I have been associated all my working life, has, like many in our sector, shrunk significantly in recent years. As I noted last summer on this blog, ‘we would like to think that when we stop doing things it is either because the job has been completed or because someone else has found a better way of doing it. I realise with a heavy heart that neither apply in this situation.

After nigh on forty years I feel this personally and painfully but times change and an unforgiving future holds no special refuge for unchanging institutions Far better to rethink, regroup, organise ourselves in new ways and renew the charge than surrender to sentiment.

Rigid tribal structures in our politics must be similarly interrogated. The most widely read progressive blog, Labour List, surveyed the wreckage of Labour’s share of the vote in the Richmond by election and concluded it was a tough night for Labour but we have no choice other than to fight on for the causes in which we believe. Really, not a moment of doubt and self-reflection? On a night when Labour hung on to less than 4% of the vote and when the decision of the Green Party, to withdraw its own candidate, was arguably critical to the narrow defeat of a sitting MP who had deliberately driven division with a singularly poisonous mayoral campaign, just six months earlier? This isn’t just about Labour. Across the party spectrum it is time for all of us who care about social progress to organise ourselves in new ways, work together better and worry most about getting the job done, least about who gets the credit.

3. Double down on speaking up:

The global banking crisis wasn’t the wake-up call I thought it might have been. Maybe Brexit will be. The vote wasn’t just a hammering for the political class or even for the business establishment but also for everybody else who never saw it coming. If the impending disentanglement is not informed by a better understanding of the needs of the most disadvantaged it won’t end well for any of us. It is time to speak louder and help other voices to be heard.

With important exceptions, civil society has been losing its voice in recent years. Time was when councils would be ceaselessly implored to not set a rate that couldn’t sustain essential services, when a Wednesday night TV play about one homeless family could spark national and transformational outrage and when charities were expected to disturb as well as to comfort. Now food banks are the response to hunger at home, not a Poor People’s March on Parliament, and, as some of our most disadvantaged communities begin to feel the loss of European funding or the withdrawal of rights enshrined in EU law, I wonder if there won’t be at least some charities in 2017 regretting their fearful silence in the referendum.

Never was there a greater need to educate and influence, to persuade and cajole, to make the case for fairness and justice and, yes, to take on the consequences. Speaking out whenever we have the opportunity in 2017 is not an alternative to practical pragmatic action, both are necessary, but, to again quote Dr King, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

4. Tell the story:

Austerity, Brexit and the American election were triumphs for the most effective story-tellers if not the best stories. Stories,’ wrote Ben Okri, ‘are our secret reservoir of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and we change the individuals and the nations’.

Two kinds of tales nourish optimism – some of the here and now, some of the future. We need to reclaim the dominant line on both, to talk more in the New Year about what we can become with decent wages, decent homes, humane services, kindness for strangers, support for one another, the embrace of opportunities and we need to root this big forward looking story in the hundreds of thousands of little ones about all that we do well now but seldom celebrate.

5. Reclaim hope in 2017:

I think we are a better society than we have often appeared to be in 2016 and I think a lot of other people think that too. It’s time to do the human things that only we can do. Change the ways we organise and work together. Speak out. Tell the stories. Most of all, because despair ne’er buttered any parsnips, own the promise of the future in 2017, reclaim hope and never let it go.

  • David Robinson is the co-founder of Community Links

The ‘strange death’ and re-birth of local government

By Piali DasGupta

Birmingham Council

As councils prepare for the eighth consecutive year of funding cuts, they are undeniably feeling battered and bruised. The plucky rhetoric of ‘doing more for less’ has faltered as much more difficult decisions with graver impacts on people and places have become unavoidable.

Yet our discussions at Birmingham Council, in common with our peers across local government, are far from resigned. In fact, the conversations that we are starting to have with residents and partners about the kind of city we want to become, as well as their roles and ours in that endeavour, have the potential to breathe new life into local democracy.

Those conversations inevitably start with the challenges that local areas are facing:

  • Social care: The good news is that there is near-universal recognition that this is now a national crisis. The bad news is that we are nowhere near a sustainable long-term solution. In fact, for councils like mine, there is no short-term solution in sight either. The impact that chronic underfunding of the system is having on vulnerable residents and on the NHS is well-documented. Less visible but no less painful are the impacts on funding for other valued services as councils try to prop up a broken system.
  • Brexit: Trying to work out what Brexit may mean for our local economies and communities feels like reading the runes at the moment. But we know that we cannot leave it to Whitehall to get a handle on the implications or to develop the solutions that will enable our residents and businesses to thrive in the eventual post-Brexit world
  • Inclusive growth: There is increasing recognition that the benefits of economic growth are not being felt by all. Part of the challenge for councils has been that the system we operate in does not actually incentivise or reward inclusive growth. Bids for central government funding are invariably graded on crude metrics that have nothing to do with whether local people are able to access the jobs being created in their areas or housing that they feel is affordable
  • Devolution: Although the reality of devolution has admittedly fallen short of the rhetoric so far, being part of a combined authority with a devolution deal is opening up possibilities for discussions with government that we might not otherwise have. We know that there is much more that we need to do for the public to feel that the work of the combined authority, including the mayor who will be elected in May, has relevance for them.

Barring anything unforeseen, we can likely expect the challenges of 2016 to continue to be those of 2017 as well. So where do we go from here?

Certainly in Birmingham, we are not interested in managing decline. Our purpose is simple and clear: to make a positive difference in the lives of people every day.

Core to our transformation journey is learning and putting into practice new ways to make that positive difference. Examples of this include:

  • Given that we expect our revenue budgets to be strained for a few more years, we are exploring how to use our capital assets more strategically for the wider benefit of the city. For instance, we are working with the city’s cultural sector and Arts Council England to develop options for sweating physical assets in a way that could provide a reliable long-term revenue stream for the arts.
  • Our elected members are taking a new approach to local leadership that sees them playing more of a brokering and facilitation role that enables local residents and organisations to shape local services in their areas. As part of this approach, we have established a local innovation fund which will fund neighbourhood ideas to do things differently and help shift more decision-making power out to local communities.
  • We are collaborating with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies to explore how the city council and other ‘anchor institutions’ can use our leverage as major purchasers of goods and services as well as significant employers in the area to boost our city’s economy and help local residents benefit from growth.

As 2016 draws to a close, a link to an essay by Tom Crewe in the London Review of Books called ‘The Strange Death of Municipal England’ is doing the rounds. One line in particular jumps out: ‘In the last six years local government has been undermined…just when it is becoming clear how badly we are in need of it.’

Councils have in fact shown a pragmatism and resilience in the face of conditions that most other parts of the public sector would have buckled under. These qualities are sure to be a fulcrum for the country as a whole in the coming year.

  • Piali DasGupta is deputy chief executive of Birmingham council

2017: building the new mainstream

By Neil McInroy & Matthew Jackson

Centre for Local Economic Strategies

The crash of 2008 prompted a new economic reality and a buckling of the 60 year pre-war social contract. Next year – 2017 – should be embraced as another year in the transition toward a new social contract and progressive future.

Eight years on from the crash, 2016 has done us a service. It has exposed the obvious choices. On the one hand, there is a progressive choice – greater inclusion, hope, social growth and a narrowing of the gap between the haves and the have-nots. On the other, there is a more reactionary choice – fear, more divisions, economic growth for a few, and a deepening hardship for many.

In local government, six years of austerity has started to impact severely on the extent to which local government can flex and bend. While austerity has prompted some service change, it is now evident that demand firefighting and running to stand still are stymieing much needed innovation and transformation. Damagingly, 2017 promises no end or easing up on austerity. Business rate repatriation and increases in council tax represent flawed fixes, inadequate in the face of an evident need for a relaxation in austerity and a wholesale change to local government finance.

On the positive side, inclusive growth has emerged in 2016. This agenda has opened the door to an understanding that poverty, inequality and exclusion are bad for the economy (the poor being weak consumers).

However, the extent to which inclusive growth remains a mere social add-on to a fundamentally flawed economic model, or whether it will herald a new model entirely, remains open to question and one which will be played out in 2017.

The promise of devolution, while welcome, is subject to hyperbole and remains a flawed project, working to narrow ideas about what constitutes economic development and fettered by rising demand and reducing budgets. The election for new city mayors in May 2017 is an opportunity for progressive mandates, which could overtake the limited devolution agenda we have seen so far. Key to this is a need to strengthen the democratic and social dimensions of devolution.

Encouragingly, across the country we are starting to see small scale innovations and alternatives. Next year should the year that we build on this practical progressive activity – articulating and pursuing an economy and society which is successful, resilient and socially just.

The new mainstream have five facets:

  1. Decentralised governance. Traditional local economic development relies on top-down government. In 2017 we should create an economic development which is made more by and for people, not big government and elites of big business.
  2. Using our public assets better. Traditional local economic development often sees our public services as a cost and their economic role is underplayed. In 2017  we need to harness the power of large ‘anchor’ institutions like hospitals and universities in terms of local supply chains, personnel policy and more community benefit to be extracted from of land and property assets.
  3. Digital maturity. Traditional economic development sees the digital era as a sector. In 2017, it should be seen as a means to democratise the economy. Smart technologies herald a new open source collaborative economy, where peer-to-peer activities take economic wealth production away from the few within a vertical hierarchy, to many within horizontal systems.
  4. Social growth is as important as economic growth. Traditional economic development tends to see investment in social lives as a cost. However, investing in the social welfare of people is an economic investment in the future productivity of people, communities and place.
  5. Investing for longer term resilience. Traditional economic development can often be a short term fix. We need to invest for the longer term, better quality goods purchased now can bring savings in the future as the same products will not need to be purchased again. Additionally, services with social value embedded will also reduce demand for wider public services.

We are cursed and lucky to be living in these turbulent times. Cursed, because the economic, local government and public service challenge has never been greater. We have a daily hurdle to work with shrinking budgets, economic uncertainty and rising demand. Lucky, because unprecedented change has prompted a new energy, to try new things, to innovate, to build solutions which may be better than what has gone before.

Rethinking the economic system to be more socially and environmentally just, is no longer a question of ‘nice to have’ alternative or an ‘add on’ to the mainstream – in 2017 this should start to be the new mainstream!

  • Neil McInroy is chief executive of CLES and Matthew Jackson is deputy chief executive of CLES

English devolution: revolution or chaos?

By Arianna Giovannini

De Montfort University

2016 has undoubtedly been a strange, turbulent year for British politics. Devolution may have not captured as many headlines as Brexit, but over the past twelve months a number of significant changes have occurred in particular for what concerns territorial governance across England.

During the first half of 2016, chancellor George Osborne did press ahead with the plan that he boldly dubbed as nothing less than a devolution revolution just the year before. The key pillars of this strategy were devolution deals, elected ‘metro-mayors’ and wider agendas such as the Northern Powerhouse. Osborne’s ambitious plan was clear: use devolution as a means to address economic disparities across England (especially between the north and the south), while simultaneously pushing for a redistribution of responsibilities – often matched by limited powers and budgets – away from the central state and onto the local level. In short, devolution was conceived by the chancellor as a sort of strategic and flexible tool operated by the centre (and in particular the treasury), often under its own terms and conditions, which involved a profound restructuring of the existing architecture of local government and governance.

Up until June 2016, many local authorities did take up the challenge set by Osborne: new combined authorities were created, four new ‘devo deals’ were agreed, adding to the eight already signed in 2015, while those already endorsed in Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands were further developed. New narratives of place and economic development also emerged—namely, the Midlands Engine: a new agenda that was placed side by side the Northern Powerhouse. In this way, a powerful and striving chancellor was able to develop what was in many respects his ‘personal’ vision of devolution with little restrictions.

However, such a plan was not without flaws: ‘devo deals’ were agreed on an individual basis between the treasury and combined authorities, leading to the creation of bespoke partnerships based on disparate geographies that do not cover the whole of England and are asymmetric in terms of the powers and responsibilities devolved. Multiple, new, and often overlapping structures have been introduced as part of this process, and juxtaposed to an already over-crowded system of governance. Crucially, the process was set without a clear end point, and generated an uneven geography of devolution focussed more on functional economic areas than on local communities and identities.

Furthermore the public was left at the margins: local authorities did hold consultations on ‘devo deals’ and elected mayors—but these took place after deals were agreed and often obtained mild and limited responses. As a result of this, the public still remains largely unaware of the current devolution agenda. A BBC poll in 2015 in the north of England showed that 44% of the respondent had never heard of the Northern Powerhouse, and 20% had heard the term but did not know what it was about. In 2016, a poll commissioned by the Yorkshire Devolution Movement showed that over 55% of the population had never heard of the government’s devolution plans in their area.

Notwithstanding this, Osborne’s drive allowed devolution deals to go ahead and his leadership was key to see the devolution agenda flourish in the first part of 2016.

The 23rd of June, however, was a watershed. Over the summer, there were speculations about the extent to which new prime minister May was committed to devolution. Osborne himself questioned whether May had a ‘wobble’ on the Northern Powerhouse, and launched a think tank to continue to promote the project. Meanwhile, some argued that elected mayors could now be side-lined. Local leaders in the north called for May to visit the region and discuss with them the future of their areas in the context of Brexit and devolution.

The devolution path in England remained rocky in the second half of 2016. The new communities secretary, Sajid Javid, pulled the plug on devolution in the north east after council leaders failed to agree on whether to move forward with the plans. Plans for devolution for Norfolk and Suffolk were called off after West Norfolk council voted against them. The newly signed Greater Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire deals proved to be far from unproblematic. And the Sheffield City Region devo deal – the first to be signed after Greater Manchester in 2015 – came to an abrupt halt, as new rows emerged about the geography of the deal.

In August 2016, Derbyshire Council called for a judicial review of Chesterfield’s decision to join the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority as a statutory member. The case is still unresolved, but if Chesterfield was to pull out, the deal would have to be reviewed again and it could even hit stalemate. More recently, new rumours have spread in local media about the possibility of creating a new ‘Greater Yorkshire deal’ that would cover the whole region. As of now, the only areas that will get ahead with their deals and will hold mayoral elections in May 2017 are Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Teeside, West Midlands and Cambridgeshire—while what will happen to the other deals is far from clear.

Another interesting aspect of the English devolution debate that emerged in 2016 concerns the role of civil society and public engagement. Although public awareness of the plans continues to be limited, in those localities that have been under the spot-light for a longer period of time and that have a stronger, sometime historical, sense of community and civic or territorial identity, the institution building process associated with ‘devo deals’ has paradoxically fostered nascent forms of agency from the grassroots.

This shows how discourses and ‘grand narratives’ linked to devolution such as the Northern Powerhouse, in the long term, can be seized by local communities, often in an attempt to challenge and reverse the dominant top-down approach to devolution promoted by central government and endorsed by local leaders.

In Greater Manchester, for instance, in 2016 the People’s Plan was set up. This is a an independent public engagement programme, by and for citizens and civil society of Greater Manchester, with the aim of giving these actors the opportunity to have a meaningful say on GM devolution and develop a ‘constructive challenge’ and improvement of GM strategy. Similar civil society and citizens’ groups are flourishing in other areas across the north of England (e.g. the Northern Power Women initiative, or the collective We Share the Same Skies); whilst at the same time think tanks (in particular IPPR North, with its annual ‘State of the North’ reports) seek to make the case for the need to develop a more inclusive and organic vision of devolution, which speaks to and is overtly connected with local communities. So far, the government may have turned a deaf ear to such calls — but the mayoral elections of May 2017 could prove crucial in shedding light on the gap between political elites’ and civil society/citizens’ views and perceptions of what (and for whom) devolution should be for.

As the year comes to a close the path of devolution in England continues to be uneven and far from settled, and shows the many idiosyncrasies associated with what has been – at least so far – a top-down approach that is stubbornly focussed on economic growth at the detriment of local democracy and sense of community and belonging.

Throughout 2016 devolution in England has continued to be a ‘muddled’ process based on a centrally orchestrated patchwork of spatial and governance ‘fixes’ that lack a common purpose and clear roadmap. Osborne’s revolution now resembles more a situation of chaos, where top down and bottom up narratives of devolution seem to run parallel to each other and take place in different arenas.

The real revolution will happen only when (and if) these will start to coalesce, giving rise to a vision of devolution that seeks to reconcile economic development with democratic engagement. Here’s a wish for 2017.

  • Arianna Giovannini is a lecturer in local politics at De Montfort University

Social activists need to find common cause in 2017

By John Tizard

Last month’s autumn statement may be the last but it did not signal that we have seen the last of austerity, cuts to public services or economic uncertainty.

Across the country communities are struggling and the chancellor’s statement offered them no cause for optimism.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found evidence that workers will earn less in real wages in 2021 than they did in 2008. Its director Paul Johnson said, ‘This, for sure, has been the worst decade for living standards certainly since the last war and probably since the 1920s’.

Other analysis shows the biggest losers between now and 2020 will be lower income families, with the poorest third likely to see incomes drop.

An increasing proportion of people finding employment in insecure jobs with little or no security or even guaranteed hours. Many are being forced into becoming ‘self-employed’ with no guaranteed levels of income from one week to the next, no sick or holiday pay or pension provision.

Shelter estimates that 120,000 children in Britain will be homeless this Christmas, hidden away in hostels, sharing kitchens and bathrooms with strangers, and bedrooms with the rest of their family.

Poverty continues as a stain on our society and for too many families means intolerable hardship. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claims that there are 13.5 million people living in poverty in Britain today.

Government’s so-called ‘welfare reforms’ have not been more than tweaked in the autumn statement and will continue to keep people and communities in poverty, experiencing anxiety, stress and hardship.

Public services – be they schools, libraries, trading standards or the police – are being cut in real terms. Demographic growth is placing additional burdens on a range of public services, especially social care and the NHS, and despite local government and NHS leaders describing the crisis in very direct ways, the government has yet to act.

Regional inequality is rife and, even in the more prosperous parts of the country, there are significant inequality, poverty and marginalised communities.

There is a real risk that growing marginalisation will fuel a surge in right wing politics and threaten liberal democracy and the post-war commitment to collective social action. There is already some evidence of this and the Brexit vote in part demonstrated this. This is not unique to the UK as political developments in the USA and across Europe sadly have demonstrated.

As 2016 approaches its end it is vital that social and community activists, the voluntary and community organisations, faith groups, trade unions and progressive politicians seek to find common cause to promote a new agenda in 2017.

This has to be an agenda that recognises that public services are critical for economic growth and fairness. An agenda that promotes investment in social capital as much as in economic infrastructure is urgently needed.

The advocates of such a progressive agenda have to make the social, economic and moral case for greater equality, fairness, tolerance and social cohesion.

They have to challenge the current neoliberal orthodoxy and the idea that only markets can solve every problem and that unregulated markets can even create sustainable growth.

They have to argue for systematic change in place of the discredited ‘trickle down’ approach to wealth creation and distribution. This means arguing for progressive taxation, redistribution between places and people, and for investment in core public services such as education, health, social care and housing.

There is a need for a progressive industrial strategy accompanied by company governance reform and infrastructure investment. Trade unions have to be supported as a means of addressing low wages and employment insecurity alongside complementary legislation. Democratic renewal and greater accountability have to be fundamental elements of any such reform programme.

This agenda is currently not as bold as it could be and seemingly unfashionable.

Social activists have to recognise the importance of an effective state and strong public policy, but this alone will not be enough.

They also have to draw on the long history of social action to solve problems, provide services, build communities and speak for the marginalised. Social action through voluntary community action and social enterprise is going to be more important than ever over the next period.

The coming year – 2017 – will be as critical for the voluntary and community sector and social activists as it will be critical for those fellow citizens who are experiencing so much hardship, poverty and unfairness. There has to be change.

I would love to think that 2017 can be the year for the ‘New Start’. It can only be if we make it so!

  • John Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator on public policy and services. He is a former council leader and was director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships.


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