Sunday 30 June 2013

Why Crystal Palace is the next Islington, worse luck

Ah yes, the Crystal Palace Festival.  It has been taking place this weekend, and it helped me see the place a little more clearly, even though I've lived there since 1986.

It has crept up on my how much the place has changed.  It is now packed full of the kind of cultural entrepreneurial people I say in my book Broke are going to save the middle classes - and everyone else.  Poets, breadmakers, writers, local publishers, local food distributors, a Transition Towns branch, Green & Browns at Crystal Palace Station, musicians, artists, designers, even a baby sling library, for goodness sake.

What is more, the place was packed without generating extra traffic in the local streets.  This was overwhelmingly homegrown.

Part of the apotheosis of Crystal Palace has been the opening of the Overground line to Hackney, Canada Water and Islington, but that isn't the cause.  You can't conjure up these kind of people in a year or so.

My prediction is that, in fifteen years time, Crystal Palace will be like Islington - exorbitant house prices, lawyers and, given the way our dysfunctional property market squeezes the life out of places, no entrepreneurs at all.

I wonder also whether it is the fact that it is below the radar of local government - an irritation to Croydon and Lambeth which slashed the local library, and a thorn in the side of Bromley which constantly wants to develop the park.  Being on the corner of no less than five boroughs encourages a degree of benign neglect.  I wonder whether, if Crystal Palace had been the heart of the London Borough of Norwood or something, they would have got Lend Lease in to build a shopping centre and destroyed the local economy altogether.

I met a retired senior officer from Bromley Council a year or so ago who agreed with me about the constant stand-off between the council and the residents about the park: the council thought it was a poor people's park - and poor people's parks, as we all know, have to pay their way and are endlessly messed around with and sold off (as in Ankara).  Because Crystal Palace was so far from anywhere, they hadn't realised the ferocity with which people would defend its unkempt, untended, unofficial atmosphere.

So I'm proud to live here.  In another era, I would be undoubtedly be campaigning for a Crystal Palace Unilateral Declaration of Independence.  I just can't face the chore of climbing down onto the Overground to inspect people's passports.

Saturday 29 June 2013

The secret of where those 1970s motorways came from

My blog yesterday about the roads programme in the 1970s, and what a disaster it was - despite the Treasury's enthusiasm for it in their recent announcement - has brought a whole lot of half forgotten thoughts bubbling, as thoughts do, to the surface.  And some new ones entirely.

First, thanks to Gareth Aubrey, I've read an absolutely fascinating website about the unbuilt motorways and bypasses of Britain.  More about that in a moment.

The second thing I remembered was one of the first public meetings I ever went to.  I can't remember where it was exactly, only that it was organised by the Paddington Waterways Society, which played rather an important role in my upbringing, because my mother was the secretary.  It was probably in 1970 and was about the Westway flyover (pictured above), then looming in concrete and bitumen over our neighbourhood in Maida Vale.  I'm not sure how I came to be there.

"It is like a gun aimed directly at Islington," said one contributor, and there just dimly was the idea of how the frenetic road-building of the 1970s had also created the subsidised traffic that soon came to clog it.

And it could have been so much worse, as anyone can see driving along Westway today, with all the blocked exits that never quite became slip roads.  The terrible blight on so many cities by inner urban motorways on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s never quite came to fruition in London.

But as the website Pathetic Motorways says, it so nearly did.  This is their description of the extraordinary saga of the London Motorway Box, as the media called it, the little-lamented Ringways plan for London.  It was eventually scuppered when the GLC changed hands in 1975, but it was no coincidence that the Brixton Riots six years later took place in an area that had been blighted for more than a decade by the Motorway Box plan.

All of which is a way of saying that a shiver went down my spine on Thursday when the Treasury announced with pride "the biggest investment in our roads since the 1970s".  Does nobody remember the roads programme of the 1970s?

In fact, given the investment planned on another generation of nuclear white elephants, perhaps nobody remembers the 1970s at all - and Windscale, Dounreay, Torness and all the rest of those vast capital black holes, all bundled up in the huge pot of money we now know as The Deficit.

No institutional memory, that's the problem...

Finally, I had a vague memory about the UK motorway programme, which came to fruition in the 1970s, and where it originally came from.  The answer was a trip which the County Surveyors Society - the driving force behind Britain's road-building programme - made to see the amazing autobahns of Nazi Germany in 1937.  This is what one member of the delegation (R. A. Kidd) wrote some decades later:

"In all it was a wonderful experience, and one appreciated the German efficiency in the organisation of the whole trip.  The imprint on our minds of a concept of a network of motor roads resulted in the County Surveyors' plan for motor roads in Britain, which unfortunately was pigeon-holed by the then Ministry of Transport for many years.  In essence, however, it came to light in the Ministry's ultimate scheme, although the basic origin of this was probably never mentioned, or credit given to the Society." (quoted from A History of the County Surveyors' Society).

You bet it wasn't mentioned, and certainly not in the 1970s - only three decades since the Blitz - but, yes, the original inspiration came from Hitler's autobahns.

Friday 28 June 2013

Roadbuilding? In the 1970s, it was a disaster

"The valley is gone and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton," said John Ruskin when the viaduct across Monsal Dale in Derbyshire was planned.  

Now the viaduct is preserved and I walked over it myself only last month, so Ruskin perhaps misjudged the situation.

But I did think of his words again when I heard details of the infrastructure spending planned by the government yesterday.  The investment in public transport and green energy is tremendously important, partly because it will create local livelihoods for people long after the bulldozers have gone.  

But you have to wonder about HS2, given that just the contingency costs are more than the entire national arts budget.  And most of all, I have been wondering about the boast that the road-building programme is unprecedented since the 1970s.

For those of us who dimly remember the 1970s, the road programme was a disaster.  It increased traffic exponentially (see my blog about transport theorist Martin Mogridge, who worked out that reducing congestion requires reducing roadspace for cars).  It created congestion.  In urban areas, it blighted and destroyed neighbourhoods.  Reports after the nationwide riots in 1981 said that every area where there had been serious rioting had been blighted by plans for urban motorways.

And if they are just bypasses, or pothole filling - as Danny Alexander put it - then why on earth are they being announced from Westminster, and not devolved to local authorities to decide?

But the real question is the one that Ruskin implies: are there actually any economic benefits to roadbuilding?

Yes, they provide work in the building - but there might be more useful ways of spending the money.  Yes, public transport infrastructure certainly helps regeneration because it allows people to live in areas they felt were too remote before.  Yes, high speed railways take people out of planes, which has to be a good thing.  

But is there any evidence at all - beyond the bogus cost benefit analyses that just add things up and never subtract - that more roads increase wealth.

Because, on the face of it, all they do is increase the wealth of big Just-In-Time systems.  On the face of it, they open up new markets for the big supermarkets, at the expense of local business.  Is there really any evidence that this is new money?  Because, as I see it, most road-building simply re-distributes local business to big business.  It is therefore the very opposite of wealth or growth.  It is what Ruskin called illth.

Far from being proud of the road-building programme of the 1970s, nothing went as far as that did to undermining local autonomy and local knowhow.  It played an important part in making some parts of the nation into helpless supplicants to Whitehall.

Pouring our scarce resources into road-building means betting the exchequer on the idea that we are wealthier when we are more frenetically driving everywhere - which encourages the amalgamation of business and therefore reduces employment.  It encourages the big versus the small.

It is precisely the opposite direction to which we should be going, which is gearing up local entrepreneurs to meet local needs - rather than exposing them to takeover by the big delivery machines.

Or am I wrong?  Send me the evidence (no fatuous cost benefit analyses though) and put me out of my misery.

Thursday 27 June 2013

The way forward for local, asset-based recovery

Danny Alexander announced today the coalition’s plans for job-creating investment, in energy, road and rail infrastructure. 

Some of the priorities seem a little strange (I'll return to the question of whether road-building helps anybody except the road-builders). But it just so happened that, this morning, I was also talking about jobs – at the annual conference of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies in Manchester.  

Richard Kemp was there promising he would push for a Bank of Liverpool.  And I talked about 'asset-based' economics, where economies re-grow using their own resources.  Because, important as conventional job creation investment is, successive governments have forgotten the lost art of growing city economies from the bottom up. This is what I said:

Come back with me for a moment in my time machine to Birmingham in the 1870s.

An experiment was happening there in urban economics that is a bit like the opportunity that lies before us.

Here we are. Reading Far from the Madding Crowd.

Agonising about the farm workers strike.

And talking about the screw manufacturer Joseph Chamberlain.

A populist politician with a monocle and an orchid in his buttonhole.

At the end of 1873, he seized control of a city that was a byword for poverty and filth.

Yes it was the first city of the Industrial Revolution, but it was desperate too.

Overcrowded slums. Poisoned rivers. Occasional water supplies.

Chamberlain and his Liberal colleagues took control from a group of independent councillors who met regularly in a pub called the Woodman.

They had prided themselves on their ability to avoid spending any money at all.  They called themselves the ‘Economists’.

And Chamberlain revived Birmingham.  He paved it. Lit its streets. Infused it with enormous pride. Built parks and galleries and concert halls.

But the key point was that he did it using the assets at his disposal.  The foul water, the money flowing through, the local people.  He didn’t wait for central government grants or plead for corporate sponsorship.  He used the assets he had.

So there’s the shape of our opportunity too.

Because there’s a kind of learned helplessness about British cities now.

They have learned from the Treasury to stay clear of economics.

They have learned to beg for handouts or inward investment.

Neither of which are going to resume any time soon.

So there’s an opportunity. It may be the only opportunity.

It’s to look afresh at what cities have at their disposal.

And use them to stitch together a plan for regeneration that can happen despite the international gloom.

Using the people they have. Replacing their imports. Maximising local money flows.

It is absolutely urgent that they learn to do this, but there isn’t much to go on.

There are examples of what can be done all over the world.  Wadebridge or Bath for energy. Ludlow or Bridport for food. Cleveland, Ohio for local procurement.

But not a lot about how they can all be brought together.

So here’s my list of three things that need to happen first:

First, we need to formulate what we mean as one proposition.

Not as a list of good ideas, but as one asset-based idea.

We know what we’re talking about.  I recently had a strange experience in the lobby of the Treasury with eight of us from the local economics ‘sector’, if I can call it that.

We were meeting for the first time and realised immediately we were taking about the same thing.

We have to set it down, around these kind of propositions: Local institutions, assets, money flows, a sense of place.
  • There is money around, but not nearly enough institutions to invest locally and those which do exist are often too risk averse for growing local markets.
  • There are assets in communities – knowledge, skills resources, land and buildings – that can be harnessed to support local economic development.
  • There is money flowing through the local economy, but when there are few local enterprises and supply chains it tends to flow straight out again.
  • A sense of place, where all the economic levers belong and link together, underpins this approach.
Second task. More difficult this one.

We have to give it a name.

Something not so glitzy that it puts off the serious policy-makers.  Not ‘people power economics’.

But not so complicated that it puts off everyone else.  Not ‘endogenous local growth theory’

When it has a name, we can demand it.  We can say: Boris why aren’t you doing it?  We can hold mayors to account for their failure to do it. We can campaign for it at local level.

And then the third thing. Don’t undersell it.

We have to make no small plans here.  No failure to grasp the significance of what we’re doing.

We need to explain that this asset-based approach to local economics (ooh I named it!) isn’t just a nice thing you might add on to keep the proletariat happy.

It’s the critical factor that can make a difference between wealth and poverty.

And has always done so in the history of cities back through all time.

It is the way not an interesting new approach. It is the way forward.

It is the potential solution to inequality and dependence.

It may look small-scale, but small plus small plus small equals big.

We need to say that simultaneously to the right and left, and to American mayors as the same time as we say it to UK council leaders.

To working classes and middle classes – and I may say I feel particularly strongly about this one.

I’ve just written a book called Broke (shameless plug) and I can tell you this is as urgent for the middle classes as it is for the working classes.

The only people we don’t really need to worry about are the least friendly economists.

Hit them with a logical fork.  Where this asset based approach is tried, it works.  Economists will then either have to pretend it doesn’t work – and make themselves irrelevant - or incorporate it into their world view.

Either way, we win.

But there’s something else too.  Cheap energy has encouraged cities to specialise, based on the economic doctrine of comparative advantage.

They have trucked in their fresh milk and food thanks to the invention of refridgeration (also 1873).

They have flown in their tomatoes and strawberries at Christmas time.

The main reason the shape of cities is going to have to change is the rising cost of energy.

We need to find decentralised sources of energy which no longer waste a third in transmission.  And decentralised food production systems too.

The question is no longer whether aspects of this massive localisation is going to happen, but when it will happen.

That puts cities in the front line of change.

They urgently need the conceptual tools to help them make the shift.

To stop waiting hopelessly around for circumstances to improve or the Chinese to invest.

To make it happen.

And what I think we’re saying to them is this: where people live, then the resources, energy and imagination exist as well.

To create the local wealth they need.

Yes and well-being too, but we don’t need to dilute the message. It is wealth too.

Remember what Joseph Chamberlain said: “Be more expensive,” he urged other councillors.

I don’t think he meant spend more. He meant be more ambitious.

Be more imaginative.  Be more generous.  And I think we can now explain how it can be done.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

The great housing tyranny

There is always a certain amount of snobbery, inverted and otherwise, about suburban semi-detached homes - especially those built between the wars, with their generous gardens, their little garden gates and garages and their twee stained glass front doors.

They were designed without the aid of architects - their major sin as far as the architectural press is concerned - but they have been probably the most successful house design in our history.  There are other people who don't believe anyone should have a garden.  There are more perverse types who say, like Marie Antoinette, 'let them live in flats'.

Don't believe a word of it.  There is something civilised and dignified about the semi and, yes - since you ask - I live in one myself.

I don’t know exactly what mine cost to buy originally in 1937, but it was somewhere around £700. In those days, the average mortgage cost ten per cent of your income and was paid off in fifteen years.  The gardens were designed in the early years of Ideal Home magazine, to include space for hens.  My own home is almost surrounded by a huge allotment space in northern Croydon.

As I say, it is all very civilised.  But I do ask myself nearly every day how my children will afford anything of the kind - even how they will afford to rent anything of the kind.

This isn’t just a London phenomenon, or just confined to house prices – the same process have pushed average rents in London so far that you need a salary of £38,000 to rent a one-bedroom flat.

If house prices had increased at a civilised rate, my home would now be worth £40,400.  In fact it is nearly worth £500,000, a ludicrous amount.

Which brings us to the latest cabinet 'rift'.  Now, when the newspapers say there is a cabinet rift, it usually means a mild difference of emphasis.  Perhaps the real worry is when they claim there isn't a rift.  The latest rift described in these terms is between Nick Clegg and the Treasury and it is about housing.  This is what he said in an interview with Nick Thornsby on Lib Dem Voice:

"But I totally agree with you that it would be real folly to simply go for easy wins on boosting supply of mortgages that doesn’t lead to supply of new housing. It’s probably one of my greatest frustrations that many of the levers that government can pull in housing can take a very long time to feed through. I’m like a stuck record round the cabinet table." 

Clegg is quite right about this, and new housing is urgently needed.  But there is a misunderstanding here, which is going to be tremendously important, and which seems to be shared by all politicians.  It is the assumption that house price inflation is just a matter of demand and supply, whereas all the evidence is actually that it is about too much money in the system.

Of course, supply of housing isn't irrelevant.  But solve that problem and the house prices will still rise - as they did under Blair and Brown because people were being lent four times joint salaries rather than three times one salary, and as they are now because of bankers bonuses and investors from the Far East.

Yes, we need more homes.  But the reason so many sites with planning permission are not being built is because people can't afford to buy the homes, and they are not in places which can be advertised as good investments in Shanghai and Singapore.

The staggering 20 per cent rise in London rents over the last year is also because of rising property prices - this isn't about home ownership versus renting.  It is about the best way of getting a roof over people's heads, where they need to live and with the maximum amount of control.

I believe that is best provided by mass home ownership.  The idea of a "property-owning democracy" as the basis of human liberty was articulated by Conservatives but derives from renegade Liberals in the Distributist movement in the 1920s, and it is absolutely right.  But it is completely incompatible with allowing our homes to become a tradeable commodity on the international markets.

It is also completely impossible if my small semi is worth half a million pounds, and - far from solving the problem - the Funding for Lending scheme will push up prices to even more tyrannical levels, even if huge numbers of homes are built.

I use the word 'tyrannical' deliberately.  Because people are less free when they have to pay half their income in housing costs or more, less in control of their lives and much less able to follow the career and life path that thrills them most.

This is a far bigger and more potent issue than it seems, and I don't want my children eking out a living in indentured servitude to their landlord, in a job they loathe but need just to pay the rent, and unable to live near where they were born.  It is the very opposite of civilisation.

Find out more in my book Broke.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

An apologia for austerity

I have a confession to make.  I'm not quite as vitriolic in my opposition to austerity as I am supposed to be, though it is hard to be in favour of anything with a name like that.

In the Lib Dem policy committee, I spoke up for 'thrift' in the run-up to the 2010 election whenever I could (probably why I've been voted off).  So let's remember, now that the new comprehensive spending package is about to be announced, that there remain reasons for tackling the deficit, even for a radical type like myself.

For me, back in 2010, these were the main reasons for backing thrift:

  • The international financial markets are indefensible, but - given that they exist - any country that runs too high a deficit (in their estimation) will be punished and find the decisions about what to cut taken out of their hands by international bankers.  It is unconscionable that this could be allowed to happen to us.
  • New Labour's public service reforms were not just disastrously expensive (£70 billion on IT alone) but led to even more expense by making the services less effective.  The way to save public services, as I saw it, was to force local institutions to come up with innovative ways of making them effective again - and that meant spending cuts to break about the suffocating central controls.
It so happened back then that the interests of economy and the interests of effective, sustainable public services happened to coincide.  The unravelling of the CQC is some evidence of that half-articulated crisis in services that the last government presided over.

But then there is a problem, isn't there.  Austerity has not actually reduced the deficit.  Osborne has had to borrow about £275 billion more than he meant to since then, and the interest payments ratchet up.

This is partly because neither the NHS nor local government - with some notable exceptions - has really risen to the challenge of re-shaping services so that they are both more effective and less expensive.  It is partly because the old system of regulation has been left virtually intact, and at great expense (CQC is only part of it).  It is also, of course, because you can't cut your way to economic recovery.

There are also limits to austerity, and the agreement to cut an average of £30 million more from the annual budgets of every local authority may begin to unravel civilisation as we know it.

On the other hand, we teeter on the edge of a precipice.  When interest rates start to rise, as they inevitably will, the deficit will become overwhelming.  What then?

Here are three things it seems to me we will have to do pretty soon, and the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned:

1.  Unravel the remains of Labour's centralised public services regime, of which CQC is only the tip of a vast and ineffective iceberg.  If this was anything like its American equivalent, it involved between a fifth and a third of all public service staff to audit the others, at vast expense, corroding the ability of the frontline to innovate.  Give some of the money to the CCGs to run local inspections and abolish the great auditing epidemic.

2.  Merge services locally.  It is inconceivable that we can still afford seven different state agencies to knock on your door when you apply for disability support.  I've written about the future, effective shape of public services elsewhere in this blog.

3.  Create the money interest-free to pay off most of the debt.  It is insane that the money for the national debt should be created by bankers - at great expense to the public purse - and not created by our own central bank, and that between a fifth and a quarter of national income should be diverted to pay the interest.

The first two of these must be done overwhelmingly to make services more effective, so that a minimum number of interventions is necessary - and the investment in troubled families presided over by Danny Alexander is evidence that this is beginning.  If you do it to save money, it will only raise long-term costs, and unfortunately so much of the cuts have been decided on this basis so far.

The last one would be a controversial move, but we have kept the power to do this by staying out of the euro - and if it means averting national disaster, or the corrosion of our civilisation, then I know what I would choose.

This is what I would do if interest rates rose.  I know what Osborne would choose.  I suspect he would carry on cutting, past the point of no return.  But what would Miliband and Balls do, now that they have accepted the spending review and rendered themselves virtually obsolete as an opposition? 

Monday 24 June 2013

How the middle classes can fight back

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will be astonished that I haven't mentioned the middle classes, ooh , for weeks...

Let me put that right immediately.  Because Mark Pack has pointed out the results of a new YouGov poll for Prospect about class in the UK and it confirms to some extent what I've been saying.  Interestingly, 44 per cent of the poll identified themselves as middle class and 44 per cent said they were working class.  A dead heat.

The rest didn't know, except for one per cent who said they were upper class - though whether this really was the One Per Cent or a few surviving aristocratic types, I don't know.

And sure enough, no less than 40 per cent said they believed it would be more difficult for the next generation to be middle class than their parents.

That is what I wrote in my book Broke: Who killed the middle classes? (read it to find out whodunnit).

I would take issue with the poll, at least, that only 23 per cent said this would be a bad thing.  This seems to me to be naive and dishonest, and a clear example of the usual middle class disease - embarrassment about class.  For reasons I've said elsewhere, it matters very much - and matters to everybody.  Because if nobody  can break out of the fetters of the proletariat, then we become a society with a tiny elite and a huge population, trapped in poverty and dependence, deeply unequal, unstable and dispiriting, with no leisure, culture or space.

I was thinking about this also as I was listening to the BBC's plans to expand their food awards into a fully fledged festival to back the growing movement for artisan and local food entrepreneurialism.

This seems to me to be an example of the middle classes clawing back some kind of role, as they will have to if they're going to survive.

But it isn't enough.  It needs to go hand in hand with a new political strategy to support the new movement, if it is going to survive - to break up the privileged monopolies, to provide a lending infrastructure capable of supporting entrepreneurs, and above all to bring down the price of property.

It is absolutely staggering that parts of the media and political establishment are breathing sighs of relief that house prices and rents are accelerating ahead again, as if this was evidence of any kind of prosperity - except for the financial elite who profit from it.

It is equally staggering that the Treasury believes pushing up the price of homes, by helping people buy at inflated prices, helps anyone or rebalances the economy one jot.

So don't believe the middle classes are as relaxed about their own demise as the YouGov poll implies.  But they haven't yet articulated what they need to survive - I think it's time they did.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Something is shifting in attitudes to Clegg

It's a strange thing, but something about Liberator magazine seems to be shifting in the zeitgeist (is that an expression?).

Liberator has become something of an institution.  I like to think it was started and run by people a little older than I am, but I fear it is actually my generation.

Now, decades later, there is a sort of exhausted pessimism about it - but you have to admire its staying power when everything else has gone online.  It is still anti-centre ground strategies, still holding firm to the way that 'radical Liberalism' used to be interpreted circa 1982 - which is the year I went to my first Liberal conference (Bournemouth it was).

It hardly needs saying that Liberator has been predictably sceptical about the coalition, and about centrism generally.  Much more sceptical than I am.  And predictably critical of Lib Dem leaders, and especially perhaps of Nick Clegg.

But I found a strange change of tone as I leafed through the latest edition.  It is no less irritable, no less pessimistic, but the emphasis is changing about the leader.

"Nick Clegg has proved he can be a Liberal, loud and proud..." says the commentary.

Even Michael Meadowcroft declares himself "more of a Nick supporter".

This isn't quite the moment to talk about the idea of the 'centre ground', because I tend towards Liberator's position on that.  We don't want Liberalism to look like a mere compromise between two realities.

I also agree with Jonathan Calder that the way the media is briefed to regard party activists as fodder to be told off by leaders is pretty exhausting, and extremely misleading.  As if the Lib Dems who played a leading role in being the second party of local government somehow preferred protest to power.

But it also seems to me that this awakening of sympathy for the leader might be significant.

It coincides with a series of conversations I have had with people, from across the political spectrum, who happen to express admiration for what Clegg has achieved - and how he has survived everything that has been flung at him.

I have a feeling that we will see more of this, and that it may form the basis for the way history categorises the years we are living through.  That the Lib Dem leader has played an extremely tough hand with great skill, concentrating on the very limited number of things that can be achieved, and holding the Liberal line in highly challenging times.

Of course he hasn't called it right every time - that would have been superhuman - and I am only too aware having just conducted a government review, just how difficult it is to change anything, even when you are the government.  But my admiration of how he has conducted himself, and his everlasting stocks of dignity and good humour, grows all the time.

And I don't think I'm the only one who notices it.

Quite apart from anything else, it appears he has saved the country from abolishing the BBC, bringing back hanging and from 'Margaret Thatcher Day'.  A blessed relief.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Why is everyone so angry these days?

The extraordinary scenes in cities across Brazil, where a million people came out on the streets in the last few days in anti-government protests, make me wonder whether something global isn't going on.

The disturbances in Ankara over the proposed development of a park seemed like an extension of the Arab Spring, but Brazil isn't remotely in the Middle East.

What holds these protests in common is that it is sometimes a small trigger - rising bus fares in this case - that sets them off. But the anger seems genuine enough - or would we, if this was happening in UK cities, dismiss them as looters or 'anarchists'?

Perhaps the real question is the same one somebody asked me in Boots recently, after a bust-up with an enraged customer: why is everyone so angry these days?

One answer seems to me to stem from the work of the anthropologist Polly Wiessner, from the University of Utah, an expert on the !Kung bushmen in southern Africa.  What she says about them that’s relevant here is the amazing networks of reciprocal obligation they have.  Not just with each other – but with families hundreds of miles away.

She was in the Kalahari desert in 1974 when torrential rains destroyed the harvest, and watched while, one by one, the families made the trek to stay with their friends where there was enough food.

The links with these distant families might have been inherited for generations, but they were there in an emergency.  New game sanctuaries and arbitrary lines on maps are corroding these – and the distant partners are dwindling for the bushmen, but some links carry on.  Any extra food or resources they have is still given away to facilitate these long-distance ties of obligation.

It means in practice that people in the Kalahari talk about what they owe their friends – the distant ones and their neighbours – the whole time.  Are they really in need of help? Did they help too much? And so on.  It’s a tireless and exhausting subject of conversation.

But Polly Wiessner says it is what makes human beings unique: social relationships of reciprocity.  It is wonderfully secure, but it’s also a bit of a burden - it means you’re always being asked for things.  You are never really quite alone or private.

She goes back there nearly every year, and she always finds the same thing when she comes home to her university.  At first, there’s a huge sense of relief to have escaped these intricate networks of obligation.  Then, five days later, she suddenly feels a deep sense of loss and loneliness.

Over the years, she’s come to believe this is because these reciprocal ties of obligation are part of being human, and I think she's right.

We know people build relationships by giving and receiving from the age of eight months old.  We know from brain scans that the pleasure area lights up when people co-operate.  We are hard-wired for reciprocity.

I wrote more about this in my book The Human Element.  But  it means that, when organisations arrange themselves in opposite ways, they run into trouble.  Charities or public services which just give and ask for nothing back.  Services which pretend to support us but are actually all about meeting targets.  Companies which pretend to do ‘deals’ which still abandon customers when they need help.

It explains a little the quite irrational rage we have against them.  But when it comes to governments which are constantly betraying the rhetoric that elected them - or siding with the powerful against the powerless (because their wealth will 'trickle down') - the same thing happens.

I think this goes some way to explaining why we feel so cross so much of the time.  We constantly feel that the institutions and companies around us are offering us reciprocal relationships which they constantly betray.

A government that offers support for people who work hard and then gives them 'digital by default'.  Or leaves them hanging on the call centre line while the bill ticks up.  Or organises them so that they can be more easily processed by computer.  Or grubs up the only green space in the neighbourhood...

These are all relatively small things.  But they matter: they are a source of endemic rage.

Friday 21 June 2013

GM and the right to save your own seeds

I published a short ebook last year as a radical history of the allotments movement, and quoted the following letter to Country Life written at the height of the first Dig for Victory campaign in September 1917:

“The assumption on which a national policy of agriculture is based seems to be that the food supply of the country depends chiefly on the large cultivators. One is not prepared to say that there is no truth in this. The five-hundred acre farm must yield a greater absolute percentage of the food supply than the little plots. Still, that is not all the truth... Some remarkable instances can be given to show how this works out practically. For example, a man who had cultivated forty rods of land, when he set about it was able to produce as much from twenty rods as he had done from forty rods.”

I remembered this yesterday as my Twitter feed came alive with rage about the GM non-debate.  In fact, the peculiar corner of Twitter which steams its way into my mobile phone was alive all yesterday with complaints about the BBC's handling of the story about GM crops.

Environment minister Owen Paterson has ignored the coalition agreement to give his enthusiastic backing to them, and - although I didn't hear the Today interview - the BBC seems to have displayed its not terribly rare ignorance of the issues.

I am not enough of a scientist to know whether the safety issues are real.  That isn't the point.  The real question is the monopoly power that GM crops gives to a handful of global megacorps carving up the world's food production between them (see picture of Monsanto and Bayer above) - and the income they extract from it, and from the poorest subsistence farmers every time they plant seeds which they used to be allowed to save until the following year.

Lord Melchett put it best, I thought:

"GM... is the cuckoo in the nest.  It drives out and destroys the systems that international scientists agree we need to feed the world.  "We need farming that helps poorer African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits,"

Here is the point I wanted to make.  There is another argument about how to feed a growing world population more effectively.  It is not to tax the poorest farmers in this way, and provide them with expensive biotech that may or may not increase yields, driving to consolidate farms and seek economies of scale.

The other approach, which has development experts on side, is to support small farmers - because, in the end, attention to detail by committed small farmers will produce food, in the right places, at the right prices.

This is, once again, small versus big.  Economies of scale versus diseconomies of scale.

The discovery that small farmers out-produce big farmers was set out in the 1970s by Amartya Sen, but it actually isn't a very new idea - as the letter to Country Life shows.  The great radical William Cobbett noticed it when he was defending Horton Heath in Dorset from enclosure, noting that poor people could make poor land productive:

“The cottagers produced from their little bits, in food, for themselves, and in things to be sold at market, more than any neighbouring farm of 200 acres. 

He noted that ten farms of a hundred acres each could produce more than one farm of a thousand acres. But it was a varied and diverse productivity, compared to the handful of products grown by the big farms.  And there lies the source of the muddle.  Monsanto and those like them don't measure yield in the same way.

Nor are they actually breeding the best seeds for small farmers.  They are breeding for transportability, suitability for industrial production, while the small farmers - those who still hang onto the right to save their own seeds - breed for diversity and resilience.

That's why I am not on Paterson's side.  Feeding the world means putting the means of providing for themselves in the hands of as many of the poorest people as possible.  Undermining these support systems will really mean people dying of hunger, not making them dependent on the tender mercies of the big GM food corporates.

That's why GM food is a Liberal issue.  It isn't about feeding the poor. It's about monopoly and dependence.

Thursday 20 June 2013

CQC, the bargain basement counting warehouse

I have mentioned before, rather too often for my own comfort, that the coalition missed a political trick by failing to articulate the absolute failure of New Labour's regime to control and manage public services.

Yes, they talked about the failures of central targets, but that was all. They did not join the dots and explain the core of the muddle they had inherited, as they could have done - perhaps because they had not quite grasped it themselves. Perhaps also because they were still half in the same mindset.

A few months into the new government in 2010, I asked a senior civil servant at the Department of Communities how they could square abolishing targets with embracing payment-by-results (really just targets with money attached) and just got blank faces.

I was reminded of this by the story about the goings-on at the Care Quality Commission (CQC), because I can't do better than the analysis by the influential NHS blogger Roy Lilley this morning:

"It is not honest to say central regulation works. It self evidently doesn't."

So, the real issue for me is not what should happen to the CQC managers who shredded a damning report, but why these catastrophic failures happen in the regulatory control regime the coalition inherited so innocently from New Labour, and which they haven't seen clearly enough to unravel.

Because New Labour was infected beyond any other government with the utilitarian fantasy that regulation was a matter of counting things.  It assumed that every public service was simply a version of an assembly line and could be tackled by standardising responses, and tuning the people involved into regulated machines.

So every time the system tightened up, the chances of the brilliant human beings in the front line to make things happen were that much more constrained. It has been a tragic tale of reduced effectiveness bought in the name of efficiency – and it isn’t over yet.

There was even a room at the Department for Education where you could stand surrounded by the data that poured in from schools around the country, and feel yourself at the controls of a giant education machine.

Nowhere in government was the fantasy of control as strong as it was there, as civil servants and ministers could sit there and feel they were looking at the dashboard of UK education. It was only when you got into real classrooms that the depth of this fantasy was obvious.

A friend of mine was a teaching assistant whose teacher, also an Ofsted inspector, spent much of the week in the stationery cupboard because she could no longer cope with the class. Yet the school was moving up the league tables.

The truth is that Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford's systems, applied to regulation in the UK, only seemed to increase efficiency.  It was a fantasy cheered on by the huge compliance industry, that helps companies measure their way to compliance with international legislation, but which fosters a peculiar obsession with figures at the expense of what is actually happening.  As the systems thinker John Seddon says, targets make organisations less effective and more expensive.

It was a fantasy of management like a giant machine, checking that the processes were followed, and believing the numbers that emerged.  This was what was responsible for the care failures being debated today, which led to the controversial shreded report.

CQC is a staggeringly dysfunctional organisation, a bargain basement counting warehouse, without insight or intuition, far too big to do more than count the numbers that pour in by fax (and yes, until recently, most of their care home returns were organised by fax).

It was designed by a government which believed that service regulation was all about minding the vast humming machine.  Its predictable failure should not mean that we all scurry about working out how to replace one kind of dysfunctional central control with another - but work out how we can hold services to account better locally.

You can find out what this means in practice in my book The Human Element.  But it is going to mean more people, more judgement and a great deal less counting.  But it will also mean a different style of control inside those services so that they might begin to claw back the effectiveness they lost during those utilitarian years of fantasy.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Why Krugman got it wrong on the Luddites

It is always rather a dangerous business appealing to the Luddites.  They got a bad press two centuries ago and they get a bad press now.  They remain the byword for people who, as we used to say in the 1970s, "stand in the way of progress" - who cling to stage coaches in an age of rockets.

But the legendary liberal economist Paul Krugman appeals to them bravely and rightly in a column for the New York Times (and thank you Amanda @briesias for pointing it out or I would have missed it).

And I was glad he did, because he backed the thesis in my new book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes.  The economy is entering a new phase, and it doesn't look good for the middle classes - especially as knowledge work is increasingly being automated.

Of course, what Krugman means by the 'middle classes' is rather different - he means blue collar workers, and there is nothing controversial about their economic plight.  No argument.

These are also global trends that threaten to destroy the livelihoods of graduates, leaving behind a shrinking elite and a huge proletariat - and I've tended to concentrate on avoidable UK trends so far.  But he is right that there is a problem.

Today's edition of Today had a series of items that put this at the top of the agenda - from the frustration of the new middle classes in Latin America to the 20 per cent rise in rents in the UK over five years (based on house prices).

He's also right that the Industrial Revolution did, in fact, uproot and destroy the lives and livelihoods of generations of the first English industrial workers.  It took those generations for the rewards of the Industrial Revolution to raise the living standards more widely.

So, he says, we need an effective safety net.  I'm sure we do, but that isn't a solution.

It is a nervous moment before disagreeing fundamentally with Krugman.  Many people don't survive the experience - but he's wrong.  He's wrong for the following reasons:
  • A springier, more effective safety net, is not going to halt the shift in power and resources to the very rich.  We need to tackle the inefficient structures of business which allow a small elite to capture all the benefits.  Our business structures are still industrial age ones and they urgently need reform.  Call it pre-distribution if you like; we need it.
  • Krugman assumes that the IT revolution we are seeing now will be a repeat of the Industrial Revolution then, and that eventually, painfully, the rewards will be spread.  There is really no evidence that history will repeat itself in this way - quite the reverse in fact.  It required major anti-trust legislation to prevent the enrichment of a tiny elite last time, and it will require the same all over again.
  • There are a whole range of knowledge processes which are not amenable to virtualisation - and they are the preserve of professionals: doctors and teachers can benefit from IT enormously, but we will all be poorer if they are replaced by it.  Some professions require human relationships to make them effective.
So there is hope for the middle classes, however defined - but not from weaving themselves a new, improved, glorified safety net for them to live in.

They are going to have to build a political force capable of clawing back power and wealth from the new elite, and to defend the middle class life.

They are also going to have to patrol and defend their own front line.  If they accept that teaching and doctoring can be digitised, and all the other professions that require relationships to be effective, they will be helping to usher in an age of ineffectiveness.

That is bad enough - but they will also be undermining their own last bastion.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Taking back pre-distribution from Labour

Some years ago, I wrote an essay for an excellent book of counterfactuals, edited by the equally excellent Duncan Brack, trying to explain why it was the the British Left had moved away from the kind of co-operative culture that was embraced in Scandinavia.

I imagined the difference was because Beatrice Webb failed to marry Joseph Chamberlain, as she had hoped, and turned away from Liberal co-operatives as a solution in favour of dour state Fabianism.

The only review I got was from the left wing Tribune, which called it "an insult to everyone involved".

Possibly it was.  But the basic message was important.  Something shifted the direction of UK reform in the wrong direction, with disastrous results - because the whole business of reform has to be fought for now all over again.

A century ago, the two sides were still slugging it out.  The New Age was battling with the Fabian New Statesman week by week for a more all-embracing radicalism.  Unfortunately, the two papers merged and the Fabians ended up on top.

So it was that Labour, and to some extent Liberal, policy was governed by an approach that left the basic structures of business intact, but then tried to redistribute a bit afterwards using the tax system.

As a result, successive Labour governments took office convinced of the need to change nothing, but to fiddle a lot with tax codes and tax credits and benefits.  The staggering wealth of the new elite, and the inflationary pressure that brings on the rest of us, is testament to their failure.

I mention all this because the American commentator Jacob Hacker has been in town at events organised by the Policy Network, about the term he coined 'predistribution'.  This is what he said in the Guardian:

"Finance was at the heart of the crisis and is at the heart of rising inequality, and policies should be retooled to foster long-term investments in entrepreneurship and innovation, not quick profits based on volume, leverage, or insider knowledge."

Predistribution is never going to take off as a slogan, but as a guideline for policy-makers it is extremely important.  For the first time in a century, it allows us to escape the dead hand of Fabianism and re-visit those radical ideas that even the Liberals lost faith in during the Edwardian era - co-ops, local institutions, and re-organising business so that the rewards spread more evenly and more efficiently.

It cannot be efficient, for example, for investors to buy a lifetime interest in their investments when they are only actually interested in 25 years.

So I hope that Liberals will embrace redistribution, but make it distinctively Liberal.  Because, with the best will in the world, we can't rely on the Labour Party to do more than gargle with the word and leave everything exactly as it always was.

And remember, if you doubt it, what Beatrice Webb's inspiration was by the end.  "Some old ladies fall in love with their chauffeur; I have fallen in love with Soviet communism", she said in 1944, during the great years of Josef Stalin.

Beatrice Webb's love life has a lot to answer for.

Monday 17 June 2013

What's missing from the Lib Dem Million Jobs campaign

The Lib Dem Million Jobs campaign is well and truly launched, and my in-box is weighed down by homilies from Vince Cable and Nick Clegg about its importance - putting jobs right at the heart of the Lib Dem effort in the coalition.

It is a brave and powerful campaign, and it is about precisely what the party ought to be campaigning about. Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) may remember that I gargled with David Lloyd George's 1929 slogan 'We Can Conquer Unemployment'.

For all the Lib Dem rhetoric about fairness and civil liberties, the party has to make bold economic claims if they are going to hold together some kind of purpose which will strike a chord with voters.

That's what I said, and - although I doubt very much whether anybody read by blog before coming up with the new campaign - that is what I meant.

There is also a good story to tell.  There is huge effort from the Lib Dem side of the coalition going into making jobs happen, from the apprenticeships to the Green Investment Bank, and it is having an effect.

But there has been some scepticism about the campaign in the Lib Dem blogosphere (I can't believe it: I have reduced myself to using a word like 'blogosphere').  Jonathan Calder quoted my blog about blocking the RBS sell-off until it can be turned into a useful lending infrastructure, as a more distinctively Liberal approach to economics.

Actually, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.  Yet there is something missing here.  Something very important.  It is the missing implication of what people ought to do about it.

By itself, the list of Lib Dem policy successes reads a little like Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technological revolution'; it carries the same dated whiff of naivety.  And of course there is a great deal about grants and clever ideas to encourage companies to take on staff.

These are all worthy and important achievements, but why do they imply that anyone should back the Lib Dems because of them?

Any political party can give out grants and come up with clever ideas to tweak the company tax code.  They can and they do.  Most political parties will claim an interest in rising employment and will stake a claim to any successes going.  Why vote Lib Dem?  What is the public reaction supposed to be to the Million Jobs campaign?

Because if it is public gratitude, then don't hold your breath.  People are not grateful to political parties.  They don't vote for them because they had some clever ideas in the past.  They vote for them because they believe they have the answer to the future, and have the capacity and will to make it happen.

That is the crucial missing element in the campaign.  If we can conquer unemployment, we have to articulate a new approach - that goes beyond the Million Jobs and explains why we uniquely have the answer.  That is what Lloyd George claimed with that slogan in 1929, and - although it was not adopted by the British government - it was adopted by Roosevelt in the USA as the New Deal.

Can the Lib Dems conjure up an approach to economic recovery as fundamental as Keynesian economics?  Perhaps not overnight, but the basic outlines are clear:
  • An asset-based approach to local revitalisation, based on effective local lending, maximising local money flows, plugging the leaks in the local economy with new enterprise, and making local spending go further (see for example my report Ten Steps to Save the Cities.)
  • An approach to recovery that understands we need local institutions, to lend to and to support new enterprises (see for example the first sections of the recent Lib Dem policy document on sustainable jobs).
Labour thinking is veering towards regional banking but they do not yet see the central truth - that every area has the basic resources it needs to recover (at least to begin to recover), if only it had the right institutions to make it possible.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Come and discuss the plight of the middle classes with me

BrokeThe publicity about my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes seems to be continuing.  Fingers crossed that people are actually reading it.  But it is an important debate about the future of our society, and whether we are hurtling towards a new semi-feudalism - and talking about the middle class is always fun.

So do come and join in the conversation.  I'm speaking about the book at the following events:

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies summit in Manchester (27 June) - actually that is mainly about local economics, but I'm happy to talk about the middle classes too.

Ways With Words at Dartington (8 July at 1pm).

Whitechapel Gallery (26 July at 12.30pm)

Edinburgh Book Festival (19 August at 4pm) with Richard Brooks

Whitechapel Gallery (30 August at 12.30pm) panel discussion.

Soho Literary Festival (27 September at 4pm, this is the correct date) with Harriet Sergeant, Henry Hitchings and Owen Jones.

I should also be at the Chiswick Book Festival but I'm waiting to confirm this.

Some of these are liable to be explosive.  All of them are going to be fun, especially when we start talking about the innermost fears of the middle classes to audiences of the middle classes....

Saturday 15 June 2013

Why are fairies making a comeback?

Leaves The World To DarknessIt seems inappropriate somehow in a serious political blog (well, relatively serious) to talk about fairies, but that is what I'm going to do. My reason for doing so will become clear, but the hook is the report in the last edition of Countryfile about Elizabeth-Jane Baldry's amazing fairy feature films shot in and around Chagford (see clip, from 31.20).

But fairies are having rather a comeback these days.  There are fairy events all over the UK, and especially now in the USA.  Huge fairy exhibitions, Susannah Clarke's novels and goodness knows what else.  There is an event coming up in Cornwall next week.

Something is in the air. Just when you thought it was safe at the bottom of the garden – when the whole notion of the ‘little people’ had been consigned to effete affectation – the idea of fairies seems to be making a comeback. What is going on?

Some years ago, I tried to track down the Fairy Investigation Society, founded by Sir Quentin Craufurd in the 1920s, and designed to promote serious study. Over the years, it managed to attract a number of prominent supporters, including Walt Disney and the Battle of Britain supremo Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, whose career was not helped by his public expressions of belief.

But by the 1970s, the Society could stand the cynical public climate no longer and it went underground. I wrote to their last known address outside Dublin, when I was first interested in these things, and had a strange letter back. It was from a man claiming that he knew the society’s secretary, but he said he didn’t want to talk to anybody. 

Not only the fairies had disappeared, but the fairy researchers seemed to have fled as well.

So why are they staging a comeback? Partly I think because they are an antidote to Tesco and the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. There does seem to be something about fairies which not only recognises the mystery, hidden life and sheer magic of woods, forests and the natural world, but which also flies in the face of brute fact.

Partly because, as Brian Froude said on the Countryfile clip, they are the spiritual personification of natural processes.  I could go for that, natural features seem from different dimensions.  Certainly I prefer to live in a world where there are parallel ways of looking at reality, just as there are shades of opinion, than the miserable cut-and-dried utilitarian world I seem to have been born into.

Will this admission help my career in the world of think-tanks and politics? Almost certainly not. But, when all is said and done, we do need to stand up for a bit of magic.

“A man can’t always do as he likes,” said John Ruskin in his Slade lecture ‘Fairyland’ in 1893, “but he can always fancy what he likes.” One of the problems for 20th century audiences was, of course, that Ruskin did rather fancy fairies – or at least their human equivalent. But let’s leave that on one side. The point is that fairies were for him, and maybe also for us, an antidote to grim reality.

All of which is a way of saying that my own novel about fairies Leaves the World to Darkness (it's for grown-ups; there is sex in it) is now published as an ebook by Endeavour Press.

It is my small contribution to undermining the utilitarian consensus.

Friday 14 June 2013

Why the Lib Dems need to block the RBS sell-off

I don’t feel that sorry for outgoing RBS boss Stephen Hester. Nobody with a licence to extract money from the economy – in this case for severance package worth £5.8m – really deserves much sympathy.

But he has had an impossible job. Does he follow the regulators' demands (reserves) or the Treasury’s demands (profits leading to early privatisation)? Or does he follow the political imperative (lending to small business)?

In fact, of course, the infrastructure making small business lending possible has been dismantled long ago, so that is impossible, but he can’t admit that in public – any more than his fellow bank CEOs, all with their own licences to extract money from the economy.

In practice, Hester has tried to do all three and so has displeased his masters at the Treasury. But what is really unacceptable is that the Treasury’s instructions have not been about facilitating recovery at all – how otherwise can we explain that small business lending has been lower for the banks in public ownership than the rest? It has been about early privatisation.

Nobody would have welcomed the 2008 banking collapse. But given that we ended up taking RBS into public ownership, it would be a tragedy if it was returned to the market in the same dysfunctional structure that it was in before.

Britain is crying out for a small banking infrastructure like our competitors. The unbalanced state of the economy demands it.  The coalition agreement promises to "foster diversity, promote mutuals and create a more competitive banking industry". How can the coalition justify returning the RBS monolith to the market without making it a useful and effective supporter of business recovery again?

The Commission for Banking Standards report is published today and will recommend breaking it up - though it isn't clear as I write what this means, and how far the report leans towards the Archbishop of Canterbury's view that the break-up must be into more useful regional banks.

The Treasury can go ahead with a sell-off and ignore the Commission if it wants to, but it can't ignore the Lib Dem half of the coalition.  It seems to me a clear cut case for the Lib Dems here: vetoing early privatisation until RBS can be returned to the market as a useful and effective lending infrastructure, which it manifestly isn't at the moment.

That alone would justify the party's involvement in the coalition.  The prize could not be more important: providing the UK with an effective lender to expanding business which is so urgently needs.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Choice works, so why not in legal aid?

This blog post is cross-posted from Lib Dem Voice:

Choice is a funny thing. I spent seven months studying how it worked in practice when I was running the Barriers to Choice Review for the Cabinet Office.

Despite the rhetoric from parts of the left, I believe that people can improve public services by being able to choose between different providers.

I’m also only too aware how many people are excluded from that – by a lack of information or advice, by a lack of transport and any number of other factors.

I am also aware of the political confusion around the term, when words like choice, competition and co-production, are often used interchangeably. As service users know very well, there are times when choice and competition are aligned, but there are also times when they cancel each other out.

This is so, for example, when the actual choice is made, not by patients, but by service commissioners choosing between two alternative candidates for block contracts. Or when the weight of demand is such – as it is for some popular schools or GP surgeries – that the choice is made by the institution, not by the user. In both cases, there is competition, but no user choice

But the basic concept is right. Nobody should have to put up with poor or patronising service - and people’s ability to choose does give the poor or marginalised the right to say no, and go elsewhere.

I also believe in the underlying purpose of choice in public services. It puts pressure on managers to be aware of what people want. It reminds staff that services are not designed for the convenience of professionals.

The systems set up over the past decade or so miss out a great deal, but holding the basic price steady, and letting service users choose, can improve services.

The evidence can be ambiguous on this point, but the basic argument is widely accepted inside and outside government – giving people some choice between providers is a safeguard for service quality and it often improves it.

But there is a peculiarity at the heart of this. It may even be a stark contradiction.

For some reason, successive governments which believe these things suddenly stop believing them when it comes to services for poor or desperate people.

Some services directed at the at the most disadvantaged people are notable by their almost complete absence of choice. If choice encourages responsibility, flexibility and better success rates in other areas of public services, then it is probably time some element of choice of providers was introduced also in drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and in employment services.

None of these services are intended to be punishments – they are there to support people back to work or out of addictions – and they would benefit from the same kind of choices that users enjoy in other services.

Which brings us to the proposed changes to legal aid. If choice improves services in the health and education sector, and underpins the rights of individuals not to put up with careless or uncaring professionals, why does the same not apply to legal aid?

The proposed changes take choice away from individuals, and hand it over to the commissioners - the precise reverse of policy in social care, health and education.

Unfortunately, the Justice Department seems to have fallen for one of the other great mistakes of successive governments – that economies of scale will make services more efficient.

There is no evidence for this at all. What evidence there is suggests that where there are big providers, which owe nothing to the individuals they are supposed to be helping, then the diseconomies of scale – the small inefficiencies and miscarriages – very rapidly overtake the economies.

We will see. But I suspect the plans will not just decrease choice, they will also increase costs.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

How to tell useful IT projects from useless ones

I’ve spent the last two days in a couple of seminars at the European Commission in Brussels about the future of work, and it was fascinating. I was there to talk about time banks across Europe and how they are developing, but I also heard about the developments in crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, micro-finance and online volunteering.

All this is developing extremely fast, and it was good to chat to Wingham Rowan, the founder of Slivers of Time – the website that allows people to work very flexibly for a few hours a week, when they can.

In this case, incidentally, they have been frustrated by benefit rules that want people either to be in jobs or not, but hopefully this conundrum can be broken by the new universal credit, which positively encourages people to work where and when they can.

It took a little while to strip away the heroic West Coast rhetoric about the internet being a brave new world, and to realise that – in nearly all these cases – they are making possible local interactions which had become too difficult before.

People wanting to work flexibly. People who want to raise local finance from friends and family for a business idea (and in practice crowdfunding usually is from friends and family). People who want to use their life skills to help out in a local health centre. All these are made possible by these innovations.

What they are not is internet-driven disappearances into virtual reality, where nobody meets. They enhance geography, they don’t try to make it irrelevant.

This is the truth about the internet, when it is used effectively. It can’t in the end subsume human needs for real face-to-face connection – that is a California fantasy. But it can make possible local institutions which had become impossible before.

In lots of ways, the internet brings back a world where a man in a van delivers groceries to your door (as they used to deliver to my grandparents’ door - Mr Botting, he was called).

It brings back a world where local people could pool local savings to create a friendly society to provide themselves with revolving loans.

Or it does potentially. We are not there yet on any scale.

And what gets in the way, apart from the wrong kind of regulation – or officials who want to describe and circumscribe precisely what these innovations are, so that they stop innovating – is the rhetoric of virtualisation.

It all goes wrong where the internet mega-corps think you can somehow measure digitally and replace vital human components like trust or love.  When they believe they can digitise human skills, and pretend that the complexity and care with which we deal with each other as human beings is somehow irrelevant.  

When public services fall for this stuff, the result is services which don't work very well - or which don't work for any non-standard cases which, as the systems thinker John Seddon points out, simply locks in costs.

So I feel a little justified in my continuing scepticism by my visit to Brussels, and finding that - where these internet innovations really work - it is by making local institutions possible, where people are more able to meet or work together.

So, for me, it is social innovation plus technology that matters. Not thinking machines that are supposed to keep an eye out for lonely old people – would you want to replace human interaction with a thinking machine? 

Instead, we have technology making it possible to gather money and people to that they can do something effective again.

You will get bizarre side-effects of this stuff. Online programmers in Bangalore mending your computer in Brighton, but that si just back-office work.  Or, more worryingly, Chinese factories paying semi-slave rates to do online gaming – creating online ‘gold’ that can be sold to rich American gamers (there are supposed to be 400,000 of these, and that was years ago, doing what is known as 'gold-farming').

But don't let's pretend this is a whole new work paradigm/  And don’t ever forget, the internet works most effectively when it makes real life, real geographical life, better – and begins, by the way, to replace our lost local financial institutions.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Toward the Setting Sun available briefly for free

Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for AmericaIt is no great secret that what I most want to do in life is write history books.  I've written about Richard the Lionheart's journey in disguise, about the strange hidden history of money, and I'm finishing a short ebook about the submarine passage of the Dardanelles in 1915.

Where someone like me can find a new angle on old stories, it seems to me, is by putting familiar stories in context.  When I published a book about the 'discovery' of America in the USA five years ago, that's what I did.

Who remembers, after all, that Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci were making their amazing voyages during the hegemony of the Borgias, while Leonardo and Michelangelo were at their height (Leonardo knew both Vespucci and Cabot), and during the brief reign of Savonarola - not to mention the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck, which nearly prevented Cabot's voyage in the first place.

When you do that, you find that the three great explorers all knew each other and were deeply involved in each other's lives.  It may be that Cabot began by working with the Columbus brothers.  We don't know.

But I'm glad to say that my book Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America is now available in the UK as an ebook published by Endeavour Press.

In fact, for the next three days, the ebook is downloadable for free from this link:

Monday 10 June 2013

Globalisation isn't happening

I spent last weekend in the Derbyshire Dales where my mother was brought up, and it had a dreamlike quality which I had forgotten.

Wandering through Bakewell in the sunshine also reminded me of one of the fundamental truths of globalisation – we are living in what is paradoxically a decreasingly globalised world.

I don’t think this just because I spend more time in Paris, Brussels or New York than I do north of Watford. Or just that I go to Edinburgh, Leeds or Manchester but not the swathes of the nation in between.

I isn’t just because a rare visit to Middlesborough, or even Harrogate, feels like a different country to south London. Its voices, faces, language and culture seem different, perhaps because they are different.

No, I’m confirmed in the sense that globalisation is a fantasy by the results of the 2001 census which found that half of us in the UK, and rising, live within 30 minutes of where we were born.

That is also about needing to be near free childcare because both partners of most couples need to work now to pay the mortgage or rent. They need to be near their parents. But it isn’t globalisation.

What I did see in the well-dressing at Ashford-in-the-Water, where we stayed, was a ‘children’s well’ dressed to celebrate 30 years of the Disney Channel. Now, that is globalisation, and here is the difference: because globalisation is not the same as Liberal internationalism.

Globalisation is about brands monoculture and monopoly. Internationalism is about diversity.

Globalisation is about widening gaps between rich and poor, centre and periphery, urban and rural. Internationalism is about closing the gap.

Globalisation is about money. Internationalisation is about culture.

When Jean Monnet said that, if he had founded the European Union again, he would have based it on culture not trade – he was saying something very important about the differences between globalisation (or mondalisation as the French coined the phrase) and Liberal internationalism.

Where Liberals have been too forgiving to the EU, it is because they have muddled the two. Just because an institution claims to be international does not make it Liberal.

It seems to me that Liberals bring an insight to the debate about the difference between nationalism and self-determination.

The saving grace of the EU is that it draws the claws of the nationalists – who represent the opposite to Liberals in any ideology. It blurs national boundaries. It means that Scots or Catalans can determine their own affairs if they want to, within the overarching structures of the EU.

It means we can be diverse and look after our own affairs, if we want to, without being either absolutely in or absolutely out of the nation. That is the basis of the Anglo-Irish agreement too.

My great-aunt used to say that the only nationalism which English Liberals were prepared to smile upon was Irish nationalism, and there is some truth in this. But it means that, when I am in favour of Scottish independence, or even Yorkshire independence, within an international framework – as I am – it is because I am a Liberal not a nationalist.

And because I believe that small nations are a fundamentally peaceful and humane architecture for the world.

The great Liberal John Maynard Keynes set out the difference pretty clearly, it seems to me:

“I sympathise with those who would minimise, rather than those who would maximize economic entanglements among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel — these are things that of their nature should be international. But let goods be homespun wherever it is reasonable and conveniently possible, and above all, let finance be primarily national.”

Except for what he says about money, this is absolutely right. Money has to be all three.

That is the Liberal answer to globalisation, it seems to me. Ideas, knowledge, culture has to be the basis for internationalism. This isn’t a basis for outlawing international trade – quite the reverse – but it is a basis for relying on it a bit less.

Sunday 9 June 2013

All regimes try to develop poor people's parks

The stand-off in Ankara about the future of a public park that is about to be handed over to developers has been treated by the media for what it says about the Turkish government and its relations with ordinary people. What the story really demonstrates is the vital importance of green spaces in people's lives.

We are extraordinarily lucky in British cities with open green space, though the environments the poor have to live in are often unremittingly brutal - especially in the big cities and thanks to the architectural fantasies of the 1960s and 70s, a blot on the reputation of municipal housing.

What we forget is that, as in Ankara, it all has to be fought for.  I have commons all around where I live in South London, and every one of them has required campaigning defence and sometimes direct action - from tearing down the fences enclosing Sydenham Common in the 17th century to tearing down the fences enclosing Plumstead Common in the 19th century.

My own nearest park is Norwood Grove, which twice had to be defended from developers - in 1913 and 1924 - until it was bought by public subscription.  It is a major civilising influence on the area (though I expect some economists would complain that building on it would create economic growth).

So the defence of a park in Ankara may not actually mean that the regime is particularly brutal (though the police clearly are).  All regimes try to develop the parks used by poor people.  What it does show is that Turkey is politically mature enough for people to hang on to their park  for dear life.

What worries me is that we haven't learned the latest lessons of green space in UK policy either.  We already know from there that mental health problems are enormously higher in high-density concrete estates without grass or trees. But it is now also clear from research that:

  • 71 per cent in one Mind survey reported lower levels of depression after walking in a country park (22 per cent found an equivalent walk through a shopping centre made them more depressed).
  • 24 per cent fewer sick visits among prisoners in Michigan in cells that overlooked farmland and trees.
  • Shorter hospital stays, fewer painkillers, less medication for Pennsylvania patients when they had views of trees.

These are important findings, and the Netherlands now has 600 ‘care farms’ in the countryside to tackle depression, integrated into their health service (we have 42). They imply that human beings have a basic need for green, natural space and trees.

One study in Seattle even found that turnover in shops were higher when there were trees in the shopping street, so there are direct economic links as well.

All this also implies that the green movement, in the UK at least, is partly responsible for the rise in mental illness. Green campaigners have been at the forefront of calling for high density cities, and high density flats, over the past two decades, and high densities necessarily means less greenery.

The hideous results – at least for those who have to live in them – are all too obvious, just as they were two generations ago when environmentalists and architects last ganged up to raise urban densities. Then as now, it was the poor that suffered – without any obvious reduction in traffic either.

But the third implication is more urgent. There is a political opportunity here, because there is – hidden in this research – a note of hope. We can have an impact on the epidemic of depression that is undermining our society but not if we reserve the dullest, concrete environments from the people they are most likely to damage.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Would Heathrow ever stop expanding?

It really is extraordinary that more homes, families and villages are being blighted by yet another plan for a third runway from Heathrow's stubborn bosses, to boost their shopping centre with airport attached.

No doubt it will be accompanied by another of those dubious economic studies which add up all the potential benefits of more flights to China, but don't subtract the costs of all he disbenefits of the extra flights, from noise and carbon emissions, and to health.

The future of Heathrow currently divides the Conservative Party, but there is at heart a more fundamental argument about whether we really make progress by increasing the number of economic exchanges in the economy - the meaning of 'growth' - or whether somebody has to exercise some kind of judgement about what is good 'growth' and what is simply destructive.

Sometimes, you just have to subtract - there are disbenefits.  The apotheosis of growth over everything that can't be put into a cost-benefit calculation is, in the end, a corrosion of the language.  If we pedal this kind of idea, one day we may be unable to express the reason for our unease as they chop down the forests, demolish the parks and villages, in the name of growth.  We will only be able to look at a forest and see the potential paper - just as airport operators can only look at a village and see a potential runway.

All this reminded me of the crazy story of the biggest cost-benefit analysis ever undertaken, to choose the site for a Third London Airport in 1969.

The government had rejected the preferred site at Stansted in Essex, and for the next two and a half years the commission chaired by the senior judge, Mr Justice Roskill, combed the evidence. To make sure there was a choice of sites, the think-tank the Town and Country Planning Association put in their own planning application to build an airport at Foulness, on marshland off the Essex coast much-frequented by Brent Geese - an early version of Boris Airport.

The Roskill Commission was determined to work out the answer mathematically. They would do a cost benefit analysis on all the possible sites - the biggest analysis of its kind ever carried out. They would put a value on the noise of aircraft, the disruption of building work, the delay of flights, the extra traffic and they would calculate the answer. 

For the Roskill Commission, there was going to be no value judgement at all. The figures would speak for themselves.  And there was the mistake.

To avoid any chance of judgement and to keep the process completely ‘scientific', the measurements were put together in 25 separate calculations. They were only added up right at the end of the process. And to the horror of some of the members of the commission, when the final addition was made, the answer was wrong.

The site they felt was best - Foulness - was going to be £100 million more expensive in cost benefit terms than the small village of Cublington. After 246 witnesses, 3,850 documents, seven technical annexes and 10 million spoken words, some of the planners on the commission felt cheated.

In public, they stayed loyal to Roskill. The commission was excellent, said Britain's most famous planner Colin Buchanan - a member of it – “it just got the small matter of the site wrong".

The team had managed to measure the exact cost of having too much aircraft noise by looking at the effect noise tended to have on house prices. But when it came to measuring the value of a Norman church at Stewkley, which would have to be demolished to make way for the runway, things got more confused.

How could you possibly put a money price on that? One joker on the team suggested they find out its fire insurance value. Everyone laughed, but the story got out and reached the press. Doing it like that would measure the value of the church at just £51,000.

A fierce political debate erupted. Commission members were accused of being 'philistines'.  John Adams, from the University College geography department, drew up an alternative plan. Using similar cost-benefit methods, he showed that the cheapest option would be to build the airport in Hyde Park – but that Westminster Abbey would have to be demolished.

The satire didn’t work: the Sunday Times published a letter from a retired air vice marshal congratulating him for recommending Hyde Park for an airport, and pointing out that he had proposed exactly the same thing in 1946.

And there is the point.  If you believe you can really sum everything up in terms of price, you have gone beyond satire.