Archive | November, 2017

On the move – fresh impetus for local leadership

30 Nov

Sometimes repetition works. It’s brilliant for children’s stories.

Sometimes – particularly in politics – reinforcement is needed for messages to penetrate.

Sometimes audience boredom blunts the impact.

But then, amazingly, the message arrives on a different train – a fresh perspective – and the audience is shaken from slumber.

That is why this Social Mobility report is required reading.

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve written of the UK’s economic diversity and the inadequacy of over-centralised policy responses.  Despite the daily evidence the march of the macros remains the average response.

Teasing apart the policy knots (treating causes rather than symptoms) does not come easily to the average big number addict.

At the heart of the Social Mobility Commission’s report the challenge of reconciling the National with the Local is exposed. Umpteen flavours of economic and demographic analysis may have said all this before but now . . .

‘There is enough evidence from around the world, in our country’s own history and, contemporaneously, in local areas to know that, with the right approach, the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next can be broken.

‘There is, however, a mind-blowing inconsistency of practice. It is the breeding ground for the local lottery in life chances that exists today. It is, of course, a matter for local decision-makers to attune their policies and priorities to the needs of their local communities. In a heavily resource-constrained climate, local councils are continually having to make difficult choices about where to allocate resources and focus efforts in order to get the biggest bang for their buck. But all too often schemes start up and then wither away. Initiatives often lack scale. Experience is usually not pooled. Most worryingly of all, evidence about what works to improve social mobility is, at best, not properly embedded in local policies and programmes. At worst, it is ignored. When that happens, precious public resources are wasted and the potential for social progress is lost.’

Despite the pleas for consistency – the outrage against ‘postcode lotteries’ – there is also recognition of the need for local leaders ‘to attune their policies and priorities to the needs of their local communities’. That required flexibility is certainly not lost on the recently appointed Metro Mayors and has been a consistent refrain from many city leaders. But after years of denigration (and austerity budgets) Local Governments have lost much of their authority. It’s a rare and brave soul who has leadership strength to develop local economic and community development policies that really meet the needs of their people.

And yet, despite constraints (real or imagined), it does happen. The report cites evidence of places where fortune has changed through dint of local effort. But the report also highlights how those flashes of brilliance are rarely shared.

Perhaps more than the myriad metrics around economic performance and evolving demographics, this Social Mobility study underscores that need for local collaboration and inspired leadership.

This is precisely the agenda planned for a unique 3-day conference in June 2018.

‘Intelligent Communities’ are places that may have the benefit of smart technology and future-proofed infrastructure, but they also prosper under the guidance of gifted local leadership.

This is not new – they’ve been studied in depth by the Intelligent Community Forum for the best part of two decades.

Next June such places from around the world will send their delegates to meet and mingle with local leaders from the UK, share their ideas and successes, form new bonds, learn of new opportunities and celebrate their delight in a renaissance of the places they call ‘home’.

 

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Cross-Party consensus and other ‘escape hatches’

27 Nov

It may not have been the first such example but the pre-2015 election consensus around long-term infrastructure planning was certainly a ‘learning moment’ for Westminster. The lessons have not been lost – despite the divisiveness of ongoing policy power struggles.

The case for removing infrastructure from knockabout political games was, eventually, grasped by Party leaders despite their decades of devotion to partisan debate. Endless arguments and prevarications get in the way of well-considered solution investment whilst the people, emulating Doogle, shake their heads sorrowfully and mutter ‘What a way to run a railway’.

Even building that infrastructure consensus was hard fought. Never mind that the life cycle of governments was far too short for serious investment. Never mind that the lobbyists were routinely exposed as short-term market manipulators. Never mind that the complexities of major projects didn’t fit into 78pt tabloid headlines. It was no small wonder that anything was ever achieved in the febrile atmosphere of Westminster party politics.

But opening an escape hatch requires broad recognition of some impending disaster.

With today’s launch of the White Paper on Industrial Strategy it is timely to review the Green paper comments from industry and academia. The Policy Lab led by Kings College London (KCL) observed, ‘It is difficult to sell a big change to the entire country without a sense of crisis’ and went on to ask whether ‘a burning platform exists to launch the industrial strategy from?’

Last week’s budget scene-setter strived to embed ‘productivity’ as a central motivating focus but was that sufficient to establish a ‘war footing’?   The KCL input was as positive as possible – suggesting unity around securing a ‘peace dividend’ ‘as the country moves through this time of profound change and heightened disruption’.   They didn’t dare suggest that Brexit was itself a sufficiently severe and imminent unifying threat – a diplomatic caution that serves to underline the long road between rhetoric and reality.

Getting consensus around infrastructure planning set the scene for further calls to remove contentious arenas from everyday politics.  Writing in the December issue of Prospect magazine, Diane Coyle’s candidate for cross-party consensus is Economic Strategy.

Writing as a member of the independent Industrial Strategy Commission, Diane concludes that, There must be a commitment, across party lines, to strategic management of the economy, monitored by an independent body analogous to the OBR. The strategy must go far beyond a few eye-catching sector deals and be aimed at long-term challenges, such as decarbonising the economy and delivering health and social care for an ageing population’.

That plea for cross-party consensus was echoed again last week when 90 MPs repeated calls for removal of the Social Care/NHS policy complex from the political maelstrom. The BBC reported, The letter argued that only a cross-party NHS and social care convention – a forum for non-partisan debate – could deliver a sustainable settlement for these services where conventional politics had failed to do so.’

What may have started with independence for the Bank of England and the creation of the Office for Budgetary Responsibilities and a seemingly endless list of ‘arms-length’/independent regulators seems now to have become the model for a new hands-off school of government.

That withdrawal, however, is a prospect that now seems far more likely to succeed at a local level closer to the people and their communities. An alternative ‘escape hatch’ for conflicted macro-managers is to back-off and devolve issues to regional/metro and local governments where attending to the great diversity of needs can help untangle the centrally knotted issues. The other great advantage of letting go is that local political discourse is far more inclined towards the consensual and the emergent White Paper is certainly not short of placed-based aspirations.

The UK is, arguably, the most centralised of all advanced economies. Sadly, subsidiarity is often and erroneously painted as some dark and suspect EU concept but as any parent with teenagers will know, there comes a time when youngsters must be let go. So it is with Mrs and Mr Whitehall – the offspring must be trusted to provide the energy for the entire family’s next generation.

And I wrote all that without using the F word.

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