Thursday, 3 December 2015

Infinite Futures Books of the Year 2015

It's book review of the year time, & below are the inaugural & highly prestigious Infinite Futures Books of the Year awards for 2015.  Some of these have been read for reviewing purposes & some not, but the thing that unites all of these books is their focus on ideas & the possibilities for creative thinking.  Let me know what you think.

Andrew McNally Debtonator, published by Elliot & Thompson

There has been no shortage of books focussing on inequality, & what to do about it, in the years following the financial crisis.  Radical responses from within finance itself have been much scarcer; however, this short essay from an investment & stockbroking veteran provides just that.  McNally’s thesis is that debt, & the reliance on cheap credit, concentrates power & wealth within a small elite. The answer, perhaps, is to focus on equity –that is, shareholding, & thus investing in the long term success of ventures, rather than short term gain.  The author argues his case for shared risk & opportunity in order to challenge inequality, highlighting existing examples & avoiding the over complicated jargon of many finance books to make a compelling case for the virtues of equity & equality.
Full review here


Simon Parker Taking Power Back, published by Policy Press

Devolution seems to be the only game in town for English local government, & whether you trust the motives behind Whitehall’s embrace of local democracy or not, the reality of city mayors & combined authorities is upon us.  Simon Parker views the opportunity for devolution as a launch pad for something much broader & ambitious, namely Commonism: a new kind of society based around self-help, mutualism & community. Far from a utopian dreamland, the examples cited throughout Taking Power Back illustrate the potential for a genuine revolution in localism & how we as a society adapt to the challenges of the future.  A must read for anyone with an interest in how devolution might be made to work.
Full review here


Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, published by John Murray

The Invention of Nature is a biography on a grand canvas, reflecting the multifaceted career & interests of its subject.  Scientist, adventurer, author, data visualisation pioneer & inspiration for Charles Darwin amongst many other things, Humboldt’s contemporary fame & renown in the 19th Century are reflected in the fact that more things – rivers, mountains, ocean currents, cities, penguins – are named after him than anyone else. More than a mere cataloguer of nature, however, Humboldt “was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them.”  Andrea Wulf’s vital book reclaims the importance of her subject’s work & its legacy and influence far beyond the confines of the history of science.

I’ll be posting a full review of The Invention of Nature on this blog in due course.



Tom McCarthy Remainder, published by Alma Books (2010)

Ok, so hardly a new book for 2015, as this novel was first published ten years ago.  However, McCarthy’s shortlisting for this year’s Man Booker Prize for his latest book Satin Island encouraged me to finally take this book off the “I’ll read it one day” pile & get on with it. I wish I’d not taken so long.  Remainder is an unsettling & darkly humorous novel exploring memory, trauma & a search for meaning as seen from the perspective of a narrator obsessed with trying to recreate, at first, seemingly mundane events. Aptly enough, the book is itself echoes & prefigures other works – some of David Foster Wallace’s short stories, Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York – whilst remaining entirely singular.  I’m looking forward to getting on with the rest of McCarthy’s back catalogue.


Something else

Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities, published by Influx Press

Described on the back cover as a “work of creative non-fiction”, Imaginary Cities defies straightforward categorisation.  I eventually tracked my copy down in the Literary Theory section of a well-known bookshop, but this is hardly the dry & academic text that suggests.  Instead, this is a book brimming with ideas, quotations, allusions & illusions – from Conrad to Plato to Le Corbusier to Taxi Driver. If that sounds highfalutin or pretentious, think again.  “The idea of cities will exist as long as there is a mind left to imagine them”, Anderson concludes. This is an amalgam of the histories, philosophies & literatures of cities, real & imagined; a guidebook for the future.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Commons People

Review of Taking Power Back, by Simon Parker
Published by Policy Press, October 2015
There’s no doubting that when it comes to political fashion, devolution is one of this Parliament’s essential items.  Following the Scottish referendum, the much-vaunted “Northern Powerhouse” schemes & the introduction of the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, the recent deadline for local proposals to be submitted to DCLG saw over thirty detailed bids put forward.  Cities, regions, counties & as yet unnamed combinations of local areas in England are bidding to assume greater powers & responsibilities from Whitehall.  If the previous century did witness, as Taking Power Back suggests, Britain “arguably becom(ing) the most centralised country in the developed world”, then it would seem centralism’s reversal is en vogue for the 21st century.

It is fair to say, however, that when it comes to devolution & the localist agenda, Simon Parker is no arriviste.  As the director of a local government think tank & frequent contributor to the debates surrounding public services & the state, Parker’s work has often been ahead of the game when analysing the challenges & prospects for local democracy.  With Taking Power Back, these experiences & the opportunities presented by the devolution zeitgeist are distilled into a prospectus for a radical shift in how & why government exists, & what might (at least in part) replace it.
The book includes an examination of shifts in the structures of government power, from pre-war municipal corporations via the centralisation of the post-war settlement, through to the ideological battlegrounds of the Thatcher era & the statism of the New Labour years.  The author contends that throughout these significant periods of government, the opportunities for decentralisation to more local pluralism in public services have either been squandered or purposely rejected.  “Britain’s centralism”, he writes, “is ultimately a result of political ideology and managerial convenience”.  The perverse outcomes arising from this centralist “hoarding” of power are vividly illustrated by Parker’s analysis of three pillars of the public sector; housing, skills & the NHS.  The latter, examined under the subtitle “Why we spend more on gastric bands than on losing weight”, exposes the absurdity of how little is spent on preventative healthcare in comparison to treating illness, a situation that may only change through redesigning the system so “local places and local people take a bigger role in healthcare”.
Taking Power Back is not merely a rage against the political machine, however, & moving beyond critique of the past and present, Parker illustrates his alternative view with some exemplars of the radical approaches witnessed in recent years – some of which may be well known or even fashionable: the story of Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority; Occupy Sandy in New York; citizen-led projects in Bologna.  But alongside these examples are equally compelling vignettes from less heralded sources: healthcare innovation in Greenwich; renewable energy in Woking; libraries in Colchester.  These may be less glamorous or publicised, but author’s knowledge & passion for these projects is evident, & alongside generation change & the parallel crises in trust with government and business, informs Parker’s idea of “the commons”:
“Localities are the engine rooms of prosperity and well-being, something that we all have a stake in but that none of us owns. That means that we all, as citizens and as businesses, have a role to play in looking after them.”
The commons includes community assets & cooperatives, but goes beyond the vagaries of the Big Society to a philosophy characterised by mutual relationships & is defined as “the combination of a resource, the social community that manages that resource & the rules & practices they use to do so”.  Taking Power Back argues that channelling these communal approaches & harnessing the opportunities for more local decision making offers the possibility of a new kind of society.
It’s important to state this is not an exercise in woolly-minded idealism, & many potential pitfalls are identified.  Centralists may be reluctant to let go of power; local leaders may succumb to parochialism; such a participatory democracy & society requires a rare level of engagement & leadership.  However, perhaps as a result of the current appetite for urban Mayors & the spotlight on the trailblazing example of Greater Manchester, there is little examination of how devolution might be adapted to suit the often complex social geography of more rural areas beyond the major conurbations. The big regional cities may be in the current vanguard of devolution, but non-urban areas are equally hungry for a greater say in their futures.
But Taking Power Back is not a manifesto for devolution or a political shopping list, & thus should not be criticised for failing to provide a blueprint for the future.  As the author points out, “we do not know how we get from peak state to peak commonism, or we would be doing it already.”  Rather, what his book does do is set out is a robust analysis of how we got to the current position, & more importantly a set of ideas for how change may be brought about.  & whilst there are plenty of big ideas in this text it is also a book with a big heart: its focus is on people & communities, not theory.  As Parker says, “change will not come from grand theoretical narratives”: it will come from the actions & commitment of ordinary people.  Self-help & mutual aid are as vital to commonism, & thus to devolution, as any legislation or policy change from above.  The key, Parker concludes, “is not to draw more lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but to radically expand our sense of what ‘us’ means, and then to rediscover what we can achieve together.” If the reality of devolution does reflect this pluralism & inclusivity then we may hope it's a style (& not a fashion) that’s here to stay.

Taking Power Back is published on 1st October.
An interview with the author will be on this blog soon.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

100 days in office & all that

The government has now passed the 100 days in office mark, & thus it’s time for some early reflections.  Of course in a five year term the first 100 days is a largely symbolic & possibly overworked milestone, but alongside some significant parallel developments it is a good time to consider the main features of the post-election landscape for local government.

Devolution remains the biggest, if not only, game in town for councils looking to evolve beyond the confines of prolonged demise by a thousand cuts.  Many local authorities are currently publicly committed to exploring the options whilst working frantically behind the scenes to make deals, forge alliances & develop Combined Authority (or other) proposals.  The government’s emphasis on local devolution tied to the elected Mayoral model is a concern for many, especially non-metropolitan areas who perceive the threat to their influence & independence. Despite this, the consensus seems to be that it’s better to be in a proposal than not. Quite how this will be resolved following the September deadline for submissions is unclear: it’s hard to believe that there won’t be areas left wholly outside of the vanguard.  This then raises the danger of a set of “off the peg” models being developed centrally in attempt to please everyone, effectively pleasing no-one & nullifying the innovation and place-centric possibilities that are the foundation of devolution’s purpose.  The asymmetric approach is, in my opinion, correct given how wide the “readiness” gap is for greater responsibilities & opportunities, but this does mean there will be considerable dissonance across the sector.

Lord Kerslake’s recent call for input into the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for reform, decentralisation and devolution is a further step in this direction.  Kerslake calls devolution a “defining issue of this parliament” with the possibility of being a “defining moment in local government history”. Importantly, he states that a core principle of the inquiry will be to engage as much as possible “from outside the corridors of Westminster”: a principle that equally applies to the need for devolution conversations across the country to escape the confines of civic offices.  If this is indeed a defining moment for localisation and subsidiarity, it needs to encompass far more than local government. The success of any proposal surely depends on the centrality of communities, small businesses, major employers, universities & colleges, blue light services, the health sector,  voluntary organisations and many more stakeholders in designing & delivering the new model. This will require strong leadership, collaboration & negotiation skills – which local authorities may be well equipped to provide. But this should not be a gilded version of local government reorganisation; devolution is not a silver bullet for the sector, whether or not it’s fired from a pearl-handled revolver.

Alongside these developments, November’s Spending Review looms large. The Chancellor’s open call for saving suggestions & the implication of cuts of a further 40% is the latest horror story facing Council leaders & finance teams. The stark choices of service reductions, redundancies & restructures are not fading away. However, in parallel with the possibilities of devolution, there may be cause for optimism in some areas of funding. Recent suggestions, in an excellent piece from Dan Corry, of substantial future funding for outcome focussed results offers the potential for genuine collaborative work on preventative, cross-cutting solutions.  If true, this fund may be the game changer so urgently needed to focus partners across all sectors on addressing the causes of issues, rather than the siloed approaches encouraged & reinforced by service delivery sovereignty.   Allied with strong, well led & inclusive devolved governance, this may be the opportunity to develop genuine system change for 21st century public services.  The impact of local authority services in areas such as ill health prevention, youth services, back to work services & skills development could potentially all be recognised in a payment by results process that earmarks the savings generated for the public purse to the contributing agencies.  Building on the lessons from the Troubled Families programme, this is exactly the kind of whole system, outcome focussed approach so often invoked as the ideal approach, but so frequently usurped by short term-ism.

So with 100 days gone & many developments yet to emerge, it’s fair to say the next 5 years remain a period of great uncertainty & potential difficulty for local government. Alongside the trials & insecurities, however, there remains the opportunity for local authorities to grasp a role of at the heart of their communities.  This role may be considerably altered from the traditional & established view of the Council, & be more aligned with what a report from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies termed “anchor institutions”, forming part of a wider combination of organisations, groups & individuals enabling their local strategic economic & social development.  To achieve any of this will take considerably longer than 100 days, but the early stages have begun & the momentum should not be squandered.  “Now is the time for canny pragmatism, collaboration and locally-led innovation”, as a recent RSA blog put it: “now that the chance of devolution is finally on the table, don’t blow it”.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Looking for the next best thing

This week the London Economic published my latest book review, a joint assessment of two texts concerned with alternatives to current economic policy in the UK &, to a lesser extent, beyond.  I won’t rehash their arguments or my reading of them here, but would like to expand a little on ongoing & developing themes.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, I see an emerging dialogue across professions & disciplines focussing on some pretty big issues: economics & our understanding of how we understand & maybe even measure what Will Hutton & others term a “flourishing” society; how innovation & technology disrupt the status quo, & how we can employ this to redesign existing, moribund systems; the movement towards devolved decision making, accountability & purpose; the value of & need for debate, conversation, collaboration & alliances; & perhaps linking all of these elements an acceptance that there has to be a greater understanding of how human systems, economic systems, & natural systems interrelate. 

Both books I reviewed touch on some, if not all of these themes.  What disappointed me was what I saw as a lack of new ideas for the ways forward.  To be fair the authors do set out their proposals for change, rather than taking the easier option of critique alone.  But despite acknowledging the changing social & technological factors of the past decade or so, the solutions seemed retrospective. The postwar settlement & the supposed golden age of social democracy undoubtedly contained significant successes, but it did so precisely because “it” (I recognise this is a very broad brush here) was of its time.  Learning from the past is invaluable, trying to recreate it is futile.  No retro movement is ever as good as the original: passion becomes pastiche, conviction becomes received wisdom, sincerity becomes irony.  Things have changed.

I appreciate the challenges are immense, perhaps more so than any of us can really comprehend.  I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do think there is a need to start with a new set of questions about what we want our society to be, & how we think we can get there. Let’s keep looking.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Towards a more coherent prospectus for something or other

Following on from my most recent blog post, last week I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for Matthew Taylor’s RSA annual lecture (click here for the footage), which proved to be as thought provoking as I expected.  Taylor’s theme, addressing what a “good economy” could or would look like, & how to move beyond the current narrowness of the wider economic debate, certainly seemed apposite on the eve of the Budget. 

& in less than a week since the lecture, political & economic issues have been ever more to the fore.  George Osbourne’s Budget, memorably described as “political cross dressing at its most flamboyant”, seemed despite its One Nation rhetoric & colonisation of other parties’ policies to re-entrench the narrow & divisive discourse of austerity come what may.  Subsequent developments with Greece & the Eurozone have further reinforced the almost overwhelming sense of economic dystopia.  I make no pretence at expertise in these matters, & when even someone with the ego of Andrew Neil admits they have no idea what’s going on, there’s no shame in that.  But what’s often missing in the news reports, articles & twitter debates between economists, commentators & academics is a sense of what this means for the (often voiceless) people stuck in the midst of the nightmare.  Economic theories, from all points on the political spectrum, seem much removed from the human reality they purport to serve.

All of which sounds deeply pessimistic, but again returning to Taylor I echo his question: do we have the opportunity today to think & act differently? Times of crisis & turbulence also bring possibilities for reassessment, redesign, fundamental reform.  My last post set out some of my reflections on themes that seem useful in this debate, and the possibilities for continuing dialogue.  I’m grateful (& awed, frankly) for the feedback, support & input I’ve had to date from some great people, & I’m still working towards a more coherent prospectus for whatever this might become. The crucial thing for me is that however bleak things may appear, the opportunity to create a different discourse and to shape different futures is available.  No doubt there will be obstacles, disappointments, even disillusion. But to paraphrase one of those inspirational people, the goal isn’t to fight what’s already happened but to exemplify what could be possible & then think what’s next.

If you want to get involved please email me or find me on twitter @FuturesInfinite  

Friday, 19 June 2015

Joining the dots

Since I started Infinite Futures I’ve been working around approaches to a number of themes, originally focussing on public services and foresight or futures thinking & along the way taking in forays into economics, finance and politics.  Having the opportunity to review books & talk with writers & thinkers & entrepreneurs has helped me to expand the horizons of this work, & working without a definitive roadmap has proved (for me, at least!) to be a liberating & fulfilling experience.  New challenges, original thinking, & creative solutions have come to light on a regular basis.

At the same time, I’ve felt as if there is something bigger tying together all of these things & more.  It’s been difficult to pin this down, & a definitive version still escapes me despite several attempts to write this piece.  But a recent blog from Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the RSA, provided a catalyst for this attempt to develop a more coherent approach.  In his piece, Taylor argues that following the general election there is an opportunity to develop a radical public debate about Britain’s political economy.  The central question to consider is “how would we judge the economy to be successful in 2030 based on the criteria of long term human welfare and flourishing?”

This question, & some of the potential answers Taylor suggests, have helped me to gather my thoughts & experiences with Infinite Futures.  As I’ve already mentioned, this is far from a completed prospectus, but then one of the beauties of futures thinking is that tomorrow “does not just happen by itself, automatically.  It is created through our actions or inactions in the present”[1] and thus is constantly subject to change.

The context

During the last 12 months or so it seems there’s been a groundswell of opinion from new voices & old seeking to challenge the orthodoxies in business, public services and wider society.  The general election success for the Conservatives may be considered to be a victory for the status quo & vested interests, but in reality we’re in a state (& State) of flux.  Amongst some of the critical issues are:

·           Economic & social stasis & the continuing reliance on credit that underpins the recovery

·           The promised EU Referendum, the continuing “Scottish question” & the challenges these will contain for UK Government structures & business.

·           Calls for greater Devolution (in different forms) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

·           The “Greater Manchester” model & moves towards devolution to regional & sub-regional areas & the redefinitions of life in urban areas across the country

·           Perceptions of inequality, the stagnation of social mobility & the failures of neoliberal economics

·           Technological changes & how society evolves in kind; with new types of skills, employment, service design and infrastructure

·           Demographic trends, with an ageing population leading longer active lives whilst public services contract; and generational shifts: Generations Y & Z have been born into the internet age, with different values, different priorities & different expectations

·           The ebb and flow of political movements & changes to voting patterns

·           Environmental issues – with natural resources being eroded by short term growth focussed economy (& society)

This is far from a definitive list, and there is much debate to be had regarding how priorities for the future can be determined.  But as Taylor says, new questions demand new answers & his initial shortlist of ideas is a starting point for this wider debate.  This is a debate beyond the old arguments of Left vs Right & more an evolution of new mindsets.

Infinite possibilities

Several of Taylor’s proposed answers (which, it should be noted, he does not advocate specifically but uses to indicate “a sense of what radical new progressive thinking might actually look like”) chime with some of my work with Infinite Futures.  The call for a more strategically focussed central state that encourages enterprise & fosters social innovation echoes the main thrust of Will Hutton’s How Good We Can Be, a return to the fray from a seasoned political economist who identifies both opportunities & threats from new technological & economic challenges, & who challenges neoliberal business orthodoxy with proposals for greater recognition of public interest.  Hutton also champions devolution of power to local areas, specifically cities, beyond the confines of current Whitehall control.  This is a recurring theme in the RSA’s work, & is again reflected in Taylor’s proposals for local taxation, welfare & policy diversity.  Working in local government during a time of unprecedented challenge, I am an enthusiast for local devolution beyond cities, & have written several times on the possibilities & responsibilities this movement could bring. Subsidiarity, in Graham Allen MP’s words “an ugly word for a beautiful concept”, is in my opinion a central element of any new social economy.

The challenge of inequality is ever present in current public discourse.  Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, & most recently Anthony Atkinson’s Inequality have all analysed & drawn attention to concentrations of wealth & distributions of income.  A radically different solution is proposed by Andrew McNally, a 25 year veteran in the banking industry who in Debtonator exposes modern finance’s reliance on debt & argues that through broadening access to equity investment, inequality be addressed through productive assets.  Like Hutton, McNally highlights examples & calls for greater employee share ownership in companies & a reassessment of the neoliberal economic tenets of the invisible hand of the market & unbiased rational investors; flawed theoretic constructs that, as Richard Thaler has recently written, have nevertheless underpinned the perception of economics as “the most powerful of the social sciences in an intellectual sense”[2].  To contest, challenge & reimagine economics with a human dimension is a recurring aspiration.

In addition to the human dimension, the Capital Institute’s goal is to reimagine capitalism to focus on sustainability & well-being.  The Institute was founded by John Fullerton, a former Managing Director of JPMorgan who, like McNally, has an insider’s perspective on finance & banking.  Fullerton’s insight that modern economics is the “root cause of the(se) systemic crises” such as the 2008 financial crisis is hardly unique, but his diagnosis of “regenerative” capitalism following principles of systemic evolution is undoubtedly radical.  I am currently writing a feature based on Fullerton’s story & the ideas he proposes to affect change to “the future of Finance”.

But as much as the books & manifestos & blogs have inspired my thinking during this time, equally important have been the conversations with innovators & demonstrations of new approaches I have been fortunate to be involved with.  Within the public sector, & despite the well documented issues arising from austerity, the desire for progress & new approaches is obvious. A distinct advantage of living in an era of constant change is that adaptability & agility becomes normal, despite the popular perceptions of the sector.  This is not a claim of woolly-minded utopianism, but in my experience it is especially true of current generations who are bringing new perspectives of collaboration, design & customer focus to address the challenges we face.  Battles over sovereignty (particularly with regard to devolution) & politics remain, but the opportunity to provide a new generation of the civic functions & public goods demanded by citizens is obvious.  The challenge for local government leaders and local representatives is to live up to the expectations, accept the responsibilities available & prove their capabilities in order to help their communities flourish.  The development of scenarios for future versions of local public services continues to be an area of strong focus for me.

Beyond the public sector, my own experience of an emerging cohort of entrepreneurs, creative thinkers & social businesses indicates how & where employment may develop for future generations.  I’ve written before about ImpactHub Birmingham & similar ventures that are re-embedding enterprise, creativity & pride into local communities.  Other examples include the Creative Quarter in Nottingham, & I’ve recently come across the website for the Civic Systems Lab & its goal to develop a local “participatory & civic economy”.  Principles of ethical working, sustainability, collaboration & social commitment are recurring themes. This is not to say these examples are the answer to future employment, which will necessarily be as diverse if not more so than the labour market of today: of course there will be no one answer.  The questions of inequality & mobility will not be washed away by a Flat White Economy alone.  But a growth in what John Howkins[3] defines as a creative ecologies (& not necessarily in so-called “creative industries”) provides “the seedbed for creative economies” necessary to adapt, shape & invent the new human economy proposed by Matthew Taylor.

Joining the dots

As I said as the start, this blog has gone through several versions, & is by no means the finished article, so to speak. Howkins refers to the online platform Ideolab setting out to “always be in beta…(i.e.) draft, unfinished, open to change and improvement.”[4] Hopefully what this blog does is summarise in beta form some of the themes & interests I’ve been working on within a broader canvas of the propositions set out in Matthew Taylor’s blog.

There are many voices in this debate, & many different perspectives on the question of “what kind of economy do we want in 2030?” It would be impossible (& foolish) to try to include them all in a piece such as this, but the conversation should take place as widely as possible. Again referring to Ideolab, my hope is that these dialogues can be “inclusive, community-centred, collaborative & optimistic.” In the run up to publishing this blog, I’ve been requesting feedback on twitter & will continue to do so now.  Please do contact me, post a comment or send me a tweet if you’d like to join the dialogue & contribute to the debate & Infinite Futures’ development.


Matthew Taylor’s annual RSA lecture will take place on 7th July 2015, entitled “The Human Welfare Economy”. 



[1] Ziaddun Sardar, Future: Hodder & Stroughton (2013), page 5.
[2] Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: Allen Lane, 2015 page 5.
[3] John Howkins, The Creative Economy: Penguin (2013), page 5 & pages 31-3.
[4] Ibid, page 36.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

What happens next?

It's taken a few days to sink in.  Unlike several commentators who are now trying to claim they foresaw the Conservative majority in Parliament, I will admit to being surprised by the General Election results.  The collapse of the LibDems & the rise of the SNP may have been more predictable, but even here the sheer size of the shift seems incredible.  Labour's strategy seems to have imploded, & in the final reckoning the Conservatives' reputation for financial judiciousness won the day.


So what does this mean for the future of public services in the next five years & beyond? Without their erstwhile partners the LibDems to temper some of the Tory proposals, those working in the sector may be expecting the worst.  Certainly the preceding five years of austerity, public funding cuts & the dismissive rhetoric of prominent Tories will stoke the fears of many in local government.


The pledges made in the Conservatives' manifesto & during the election campaign raise as many questions as answers.  The (in)famous £12bn in welfare cuts remain shrouded in mystery, but the potential for pain is clear.  The future of social housing, already suffering from years of neglect, has been destabilised further by the election promise of the extension of right to buy.  Even the devolution of powers to local areas is largely cloaked in the nebulous phrase "Northern Powerhouse".  This is a bugbear of mine, mainly for two reasons.  Firstly, how exactly is the "North" being defined? There is no agreement what this term even means in Doncaster, never mind Downing Street. I heard an interviewee in Newcastle scoffing at the idea of a Mancunian hub for the Powerhouse, as that city was "in the south" as far as he was concerned. Westminster soundbites will not help the cause of subsidiarity.  & the second reason is that the focus on the "North", whilst politically astute during the campaign, side-lines huge swathes of the country where the appetite, potential & need for greater responsibility & accountability is just as valid as that of Manchester, West Yorkshire & beyond.  I hope the business rates pilot scheme in Cambridgeshire is an indication of the broadening of this canvas.


& yet there are reasons for optimism.  The appointment of Greg Clark as Communities Secretary indicates a continued emphasis on devolution & decentralisation, together with a more collegiate & constructive approach to Whitehall's relationship with local authorities.  The Conservatives have thus far been much more open to asymmetric devolution proposals, & although the city-centric approach may continue to hold sway the Tory shires will no doubt be lobbying for their own deals.  This suggests the fundamental shift in local accountability & autonomy dreamt of by many in local government may be within reach. 


To make this possible, the pre-election momentum must not be wasted. The incoming government has an overflowing in tray, particularly with the Nationalist surge in Scotland & the perennial EU referendum issue for the Conservative Party.  Missed opportunities at this stage may be lost forever.   The DevoManc deal, Centre for Cities' excellent publications, the Key Cities manifesto, the Non-Met report, and many more - all of these documents, positions & offers have built a case for devolution of some kind.  Perhaps now is the time for a collective voice for local authorities of all types - metropolitan, district & county - to pull all of this together as a menu of options for central government.  Much as the LGA's excellent "First 100 Days of the Next Government" has set out a range of proposals for radical change to help address the financial and systemic problems in local government, the devolution agenda requires a comprehensive, collective voice.  This may result in a loss of sovereignty for some, & may require a fundamental reassessment of how the public, private and voluntary sectors work together in future to focus on local priorities.  But place based budgets, financial autonomy, early intervention for complex issues, innovative service design: all these & more are up for grabs.  The opportunity to create a vibrant, sustainable future for local government is there to be grasped; the sector must seize its chance.

Friday, 24 April 2015

May 7th & the future of local government

So there’s less than two weeks to go now until Election Day & the reckoning that comes with it, & the political narratives are well established.  Long term economic plans, protecting the NHS, dealing with the deficit, ending austerity & increasing housing supply are the interchangeable mantras heard throughout each day from almost every side.  It has felt like a curiously cautious campaign, with as much emphasis from the major parties on not scaring the horses rather than providing hope, inspiration or new directions.

Central to the groupthink on public spending is the NHS.  I’ve written before on the sacred cow that is, in Nigel Lawson’s famous phrase, “the closest thing the English have to a religion”.  The election campaign has evidenced this more than ever, if the party pledges are anything to go by.  The Conservatives promise at least an extra £8bn per year by 2020, as do the LibDems who add an extra £500m per year for mental health services.  Labour promise £2.5bn of extra funding for the NHS per annum, 8,000 new GPs & 20,000 more nurses.  UKIP pledge 8,000 more GPs, 20,000 more nurses, 3,000 more midwives & £3bn per year extra funding.  The SNP want £9.5bn extra for Britain, with £2.5bn of that specifically for Scotland.  & so it goes on.

Of course no party wishes to commit political suicide by being seen as anti-NHS, even those who disagree with the way it is structured.  & so the arms race of NHS spending pledges continues exponentially. 

Compare this to the parties’ stances on other public services.  Yes the (current) big three have all committed (in different ways) to greater devolution of powers to local areas.  Education remains an area of focus, but with the emphasis on how schools are administered and what the curriculum should contain.  New housing is vital, but local government’s role in how this might be delivered is barely mentioned, beyond the Conservatives’ focus on the sale of existing Council properties to help fund the extension of Right to Buy.

The conclusion I find hard to avoid is that when it comes to influencing the debate, local government has largely failed.  Within the sector it is widely recognised that councils have, in most cases, adapted to post-2010 austerity well.  Perhaps too well.  Unlike the health sector, local government does not cry out for more money, & has not warned of imminent disaster if the funding doesn’t come.  The sector has raised objections & sounded warnings, but then generally got on with making the best of a bad situation.  This is laudable, but the truth of the matter is that whilst politicians of all stripes are falling over themselves to “protect” the NHS, local government is seen as an easy target for more reductions in funding.

The fragmented nature of local government is a part of this.  The LGA has a crucial role to play, but the competing claims of Counties, Districts and Metropolitan areas mean that the sector often does not speak with a united voice.  This makes it all the more easy for national politicians ignore or override their local counterparts. In the area of public health, Michael Marmot’s “Social Determinants of Health”, and councils’ central role in addressing these issues, are widely acknowledged.  But does this message get reflected in the discourse of national politics? Local government, ironically, is not a vote winner. Alongside this, the sector’s complexities make it difficult for the general public to know what councils do, never mind how they do it.  & in the current climate fomented by certain politicians, public opinion of local government is weighed down by inaccurate perceptions of largesse, “gold plated pensions”, & so on & so forth.

This being the case, the election will certainly provide significant further challenges for the sector as a whole.  But it does also afford the possibility of opportunities.  Whichever party, or parties, holds power after May 7th will be aware that despite the election rhetoric, all public services face an era of economic, technological, demographic & social change.  The challenge for local government is to convince the politicians & the public that we are a fundamental part of the solutions to these changes.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Reflections on Hutton

The London Economic today published my review of Will Hutton's latest book, How Good We Can Be.  As I said in my last post, Hutton was the first political economist I read, & it's been fascinating to return to his writing & approach. His is a particular world view, & one that I sympathise with on the whole, if not in some his conclusions. The review covers the main themes & proposals of the book, but I did want to add some personal reflections on a particular passage from the text, which I've quoted below:

"The clerisy of well-read individuals, creative artists and academics prepared to engage in public argument, participate in public life and challenge the new orthodoxies - and who might stiffen the ranks of the professionals, working-class and faith healers - is thinner and less influential than it should be... There is not enough energy to contest what is happening. This is not fertile ground for a progressive culture, new alliances and a politics that challenges today's business and financial structures."

Hutton does go on to say that counter-trends do exist, & his conclusions on the whole focus on the positive opportunities for change. But the excerpt above stuck with me throughout, because I see things very differently, admittedly at some distance from the Oxford College Principal & Observer columnist position of Hutton. 

I would argue that the countervailing parties are very much out there & affecting change in new & substantive ways. Examples like the ImpactHub in Birmingham are evidence of a collective, progressive approach to collaboration, creativity & innovation. Likewise, Rowan Conway's recent blog illustrates the generational differences in approach between Boomers, GenX (my generation, baby) & Millenials - but the common ground is the desire for progressive change. & the Internet & social media may well be fertile ground for fruitcakes, but there are plenty of seekers of the new alliances Hutton describes.

& not forgetting Will Hutton himself, who is not afraid to confront this "crisis of ideas" with his own analyses, critiques &, crucially, suggested remedies.  He suggests this is "the future is bright - if we can seize it" & is prepared to participate in public life to make this case, despite the certain flak from those who disagree with his approach. That's something to be inspired by.

Monday, 9 February 2015

How Good? Let's see...

It's been a busy week.  Last Friday, New Start magazine published my review of John Seddon's "The Whitehall Effect" - . As summarised in the review, Seddon's trenchant criticism of the industrialisation of public services & the policy mistakes made by Governments (Central and local) during the last 35 years makes for compelling, if disturbing, reading.  If the tone of the book sometimes disappoints, the concluding focus on the possibilities for change is redeeming. 

On Monday this was followed by the receipt of a copy of Will Hutton's new book "How Good We Can Be", which I'll be reviewing soon. Hutton's seminal "The State We're In", published 20 years ago, was the first book of its kind I'd ever read & opened my mind to journalism & analysis of politics & the economy. Years later I saw him speak at a conference on austerity & public services, & although I don't always agree with his analyses I hugely admire his work & commitment to public society. Thus far the new text is living up to expectations. 

Monday also saw the publication of Respublica & Core Cities report "Restoring Britain's City States", Alongside recent publications from the RSA & Centre for Cities this report continues the current narrative momentum for English devolution to cities and City Regions, a momentum that continued to a certain extent at Tuesday's NLGN ( annual conference "Looking for a new England" held at the City of London Guildhall.  The keynote address from Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, set out the long road to last year's milestone agreement to create a Greater Manchester Authority , which as he pointed out actually began in 1985! This timescale adds a different perspective to the current scramble to replicate DevoManc in other regions of the country: as was noted by several fellow attendees, the relationships, trust & confidence to break the mould of local government takes time to evolve.

Also noteworthy from the conference was the differing levels of enthusiasm & commitment for devolution between politicians, but not due to the usual tribal loyalties. The strongest voices in favour came from the local politicians (both Labour & Tory) who seemed to be at best dismayed, if not disgruntled, at the lack of trust & understanding shown by Parliamentary colleagues. As was rightly pointed out, few Ministers are likely to vote in favour of giving away hard-won power without understanding the benefits, & it is for local government leaders to make a persuasive case for change. The revolution (if it comes) will be led by the localities, but Richard Leese sounded a warning: any changes are currently made at the whim of Ministers, & that which can be done at the stroke of a pen can just as easily be undone. The need for a new constitutional settlement remains.

Hotfoot from the Guildhall I returned to the Midlands for Tuesday night's RSA West Midlands ( engage event, held at the brilliant & inspiring Impact Hub Brum ( for an evening of networking, conversation & inspiration. Eight pitches for involvement, input & support were made from Fellows aiming to reduce waste, inspire children, design the future, & develop new skills (amongst many other things!). I'm hoping to be involved in a couple of these projects & look forward to getting started, but more than anything came away from the Hub immersed in a sense of shared optimism, enthusiasm & determination to create change. These are difficult times, but as John Seddon points out the opportunities are immense. In the words of Will Hutton, "the challenge is to shape this future rather than be shaped by it."

Monday, 26 January 2015

100 days to go. Or, it's all Greek to me

It's beyond a cliche to say we are living in tumultuous times. Yesterday's election result in Greece is just the latest aftershock from the global economic & political earthquakes that are coming to define the 21st Century to date. The Greek electorate's support for Syriza & their rejection of the "imposed austerity" from the EU & IMF reaffirms the sense that many of the existing political certainties in the West are crumbling. In place of these lost certainties remain only questions: what next for Greece? For the EU? For the Euro?

Today also marks 100 days to go to the British General Election.  The countdown is underway with a background of increasing pluralism.  The two traditional parties may still be out in front of all the challengers, but the potential make up of the next administration is open to many possibilities. LibDems, UKIP, the Greens, the nationalists in Wales & Scotland, & the idiosyncrasies of Northern Irish politics are all potential elements to be considered & factored in to possible scenarios.  

Many commentators have pointed to the rise of non-mainstream parties as being a voice for populism, whether it's left wing in Greece, right wing in Holland, or (as seems to be the case in the UK) a bit of both. The narratives of these non-traditional parties can often be summarised fairly simply: the mainstream "elite" got us into this mess & don't care about ordinary people, only we can be the voice of the masses.  Whether you blame capitalism, immigration, banks, neoliberalism or wind farms, there is a simple answer to all of the West's ills.  

It is therefore vital that during these changing times, political parties & movements are scrutinised & questioned over their motives, but also that they are explained & contextualised.  During the last few days I've become ever more thankful for the insight & analysis of particular journalists & broadcasters. Freedom of the press has rightly been a very pressing concern following the events in Paris, but often the daily grind of news & current affairs can be viewed with cynicism. I'd like to sing the praises of some of Britain's journalists who don't make the headlines for phone hacking, but do make news stories that help to bring understanding, knowledge and daylight into an often murky world.  A fine example is Paul Mason's reporting from Greece for Channel 4, bringing a depth of history & nuance to an often complex & confusing scene.  & the introduction of 100 constituencies in 100 days from the Today programme promises a range of insight & human stories from around the country beyond the Westminster village. 

2015 is shaping up to be a year of radical change. Let's give thanks to the voices that help us understand (at least in part) what's going on. 

Edit 30.01.15: links below