Today’s news release from Ofsted — about the failure of schools to us the Pupil Premium to support individual students — will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked at a strategic level within an urban Local Education Authority.
For years education planners at a local level have agonised about how they can get ext a funding through to those schools with high levels of deprivation; there is nothing new about the concept of the pupil premium. Whether extra cash in itself makes a greta difference is a moot point but the only real way we had of supporting extra need was through targeted payments in the local schools budgets. But even 20 years ago education planners recognised that some schools took the money but often failed to plough it in to extra support for young people. Some, for example, used the cash to stack up reserves to support a building improvement when many would have liked to have seen that cash utilised in the class room.
This is the very same issue that is today being raised by the new head of Ofsted Sit Michael Wilshaw. However, Sit Michael Wilshaw has a new headache to deal with — the deliberate fragmentation of the education system.
Twenty years of so ago — when I was the Chair of Birmingham’s Education System — we had to deal with this. In those days some schools were building up reserves for future expansion rather than spending the cash on new support services for pupils. Rising balances were noticed by financial planners in both the local authority and in Whitehall. Threats were made about taking the funds away from schools in this position and, of course, in such a situation the people who would have lost were the very same pupils to whom the funds were allocated in the first place!
It was the LEAs who tackled this problem head on. Like many of my colleagues around the country, I found myself visiting schools who were not spending the cash as it was intended. We talked to Headteachers and Governors about their plans for their reserves, why the funds weren’t being utilised and what their long term plans were. In short, it was the LEA who applied the muscle to those who weren’t playing ball. In some cases it was clear that the school had clear long term plans for investment that would have supported educational development and those long term plans were recognised. But others could not demonstrate a benefit to pupils and they were required — shamed in some cases — to start spending that money of students.
You might say that this is what you would expect from an LEA, they were there to watch over the educational system within their patch. But who does this today? Today we have an increasingly fragmented system with some schools wanting to become Academies and others being required by government to become Academies. With each school that leaves the local system the LEA sees a reduction in resource. The more fragmented the system becomes the less able an LEA is able to make these telling interventions.
So, will central government be able to take on this role? It looks unlikely.
A few months ago Sir Michael Wilshaw himself addressed the issue of support for schools. He made it clear that Ofsted could not fill the gap — there was not way it could — or should — take on some of the roles and functions of local authorities. So, who might?
Sir Michael has talked about the establishment of educational commissioners, people who would take on both the support and the regulatory role of LEAs, but it is not clear who these people might be. The early days of OFSTED utilised an army of early retired educationalists but any new service today is likely to be let under national framework contracts to the big educational and management consultancies. I suspect that such a system would be an anathema to many schools and parents.
Once again we can see the practical importance of a Local Education Authority and once again we can see real problems being derived from the ideological assault on local democracy.
I’ll leave my final comments for the media that cover this story. They should be asking Si Michael two questions. Firstly, what can he and his team do about it? Secondly, what should central government be doing about it?
The more devolved a system becomes the more subtle it needs to be in policing policies and ensuring good practice. LEAs have years of experience of doing just that. The Department of Education doesn’t. Whitehall tends to work by diktat rather than by informed local discussion and debate.
Today’s new item shows, yet again, why local democracy is critical to a school system. Nobody wants people in LEAs determining an individual school’s management system or an individual schools larding philosophy. But the accountability of schools, the debate over how we best raise standards locally and yet the occasional application of muscle should be done locally.
LEAs have shown over recent years that they are good at coping with change, both dramatic change and more gradual change. If government — and Sir Michael — really wants to make a difference here they should tart by recognising what can be done at a local level.
As with all policy, governance by prejudice is probably not a good starting point. It is time for the government to look again at the creative and constructive role that can be played by local government. And they need to make the resources available for that to happen. Otherwise the telling observations of Sir Michael will simply fall on deaf ears.
It’s not a particularly fashionable view I know, but I still believe in importance of local government. Despite decades of centralisation and the imposition of all kinds of restrictive regimes local government still has both the power and the potential to innovate on behalf of their communities. It has always been true — and still is — that many national programmes have their origins in innovative work that was pioneered by local government.
Successive governments have utilised various tactics to marginalise local government, most noticeably in seeking to establish funding schemes were local community projects deal direct with central government. These schemes generate a lot of noise for the actual spending they control. Local government can — and regularly does — achieve a lot more, in partnership with communities, through its own funding. In times such as these marginalised communities — and those who are suffering unemployment or underemployment — rely on the determination and ingenuity of local government. Quite simply, localised needs that can be ignored by a right wing ideologue government like this one can’t be missed at a local level.
All of the fuss and the glamour of the Cabinet Reshuffle overshadowed one of the most important pronouncements of the last week. Sir Mervyn Cockell — Tory Chairman of the Local Government Association and the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea — issued a warning about deterioration of local government reserves. According to Sir Mervyn the government’s policy of effectively enforcing the spending of reserves could lead — across the country — to them being wiped out over a five year period. He could have added that this is precisely the aim of the current long-term spending programme.
In essence, the value of a local authority’s reserves will be taken into account when annual budget allocations are calculated.
The use of reserves in local government has always been controversial. During the Thatcher years guidance as regularly given to the effect that local government wasn’t keeping enough in reserve. Labour councils, in particular, were always keen to use reserves to support employment programmes and to kick start regeneration programmes. Thatcher’s guidance was designed to tighten the cap on spending. Cameron’s government has gone further by literally taking the money away. Make no mistake this policy represents a major spending cut but one which rob ably won’t be noticed by most people.
Local Authority reserves are used to innovate, to pump pine development and to support those communities that are most in need. Your council might be looking to clear a development site, support the expansion of local businesses struggling to raise cash during the current banking crisis, implement a new community development initiative or maybe even to support the development of food coops or food banks. Often these reserves are critical to local business. Council development funding is often key to unlocking contributions and spending from the private sector who like to minimise risk wherever they can. Quite simply, local government spending can make a great difference.
It is time for local government to become trendy again. I would be the first to agree that councils and their politicians can do a lot to up their game, but they remain the greatest support partner for any local community wishing to develop a new support initiative or service.
Labour is now entering the critical phase of this Parliament. Over the coming months Jon Cruddas and his review team need to re-evaluate the value of local government and make plans to re-envigourate it and allow it to assert grater independence from the centre over coming years.
Central planning, standards and inspection regimes are not going to go away. Local government can respond to all of these but take away its discretionary funds and its not just Councillors that will suffer but all of us. Giving local councils grater powers and flexibility is one thing but innovation requires cash. This issue of reserves will need to be addressed creatively along with other freedoms and ideas, including local tax raising powers, if we are truly to build on localism.
Whatever else central government is, it is not a particularly effective promoter of localist development and never can be. Local knowledge and local priorities will always win the day.
Taking away local government’s reserves and forcing them to “sell the family silver” means that valuable resources are being taken away from local communities, local workers, local companies, local families and so on.
I wish Sir Mervyn and his colleagues well in their battle with both Mr Pickles and the Treasury.
This article was first published in the journal of the Socialist Education Association
How should we respond to Academies? This question is causing confusion amongst politicians up and down the country.
Locally, progressive politicians will always focus on three key issues: rising school standards and the raising of student achievement; fair admissions — critical for both the success of students and schools alike; and finally, they will be concerned that financial investment in schools is made on a need basis rather than a system that rewards the friends’ of government.
The LEA’s key political tool for intervention is the School Improvement Notice, a formal power that allows quick Invention, for the changing of senior management and governors where necessary. These powers are lost when a school becomes an Academy. The council’s remaining role will be one of either scrutiny or as a direct service contractor (and we might if these are compatible).
Each attempt by central government to centralise education has led to a greater confusion in admissions. Competition is welcomed for some but it disempowers others, especially in areas of deprivation. The rush by some schools to be first in line to join new centralised initiatives is often an attempt to benefit financially and to cash in on the incentives that are always on offer to ‘early adopters’.
Each school that leaves the LEA takes with it the funds retained by an LEA to support school improvement and the raising of standards. Deals to deliver contracted services to schools may support existing jobs or services in the short term but they will not support the LEA’s neutral role in raising standards and planning for a sensible map of provision.
In the case of an Academy, who provides the support to schools that has traditionally been given by LEAs? Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw makes it clear that OFSTED does not have the resources to fulfil this role and envisages a system of local Education Commissioners to support school improvement. But who might these Commissioners be? It just as likely that Education Commissioners will be appointed trough major framework contracts that will go to the large private, public service, sector.
It is inconceivable that a local authority in an urban area including significant areas of deprivation, and low skill levels, should absolve itself of the responsibility of securing school improvement.The centralisation of schools has long been a policy aim of the Tories and of the Department of Education. Both see schools as islands without any real consideration how they contribute to local communities and to the local economy.
If Labour wins the next election it may well inherit a new educational landscape but that is no reason to capitulate now. Many public services — and schools are critical community services — should always be part of a local system of accountability, planning and development. Centralise all schools and it will be our communities that suffer in the long term. We will have lost a critical tool to support the long-term development of our communities.
A couple of years ago Birmingham’s political classes began to be aware of a new name in town, Politics in Brum. which was using social media to promote political debate in the city. As the organisation has developed Politics in Brum’s founder, Pauline Geoghegan, has branched out into public meetings and appearances on national and local media.
In this podcast I talk to Pauline about any she established Politics in Brum and about how she hopes to see the initiative develop.
Follow Politics in Brum on twitter as @politicsinbrum
IF you were very in any doubt that the economy was the starting point for any political platform you would have been put right by a visit to Liverpool. Everywhere you turn there are senior figures wanting to talk about the economy. Some, like Tessa Jowell, are in apologetic mode. Others like Prescott are completely unapologetic; we might fight to defend our achievements in infrastructure — school, hospitals — and in new initiatives such as the minimum wage and Sure Start. While apologies aren’t enough it is also not wight to simply trumped achievements, especially when they are not made on the back on found financial policy.
Labour has a massive long-term problem. Since the dawn of New Labour the leadership has relied on growth to both deliver a redistribution of wealth and to revitalise our ailing infrastructure. Growth delivered higher tax take through a rise in income tax, corporation tax and VAT receipts. Even the utility windfall tax was possible because of strong growth in the economy. This remains the mantra for some. Yesterday heard Yvette Cooper talking about the need to restore growth in much the same way as New Labour had.
While I will be as quick as anyone to defend our infrastructure record I feel we have to take real notice of our economic failings, not so that we can flog ourselves in public but so that we can learn from our mistakes.
From 2003 onwards a number of Brown’s financial advisers were advising that we were spending right up to the limit (and maybe beyond) what was prudent. While the soundbites of the balanced economy and the management of spending over cycles were trotted out the fact was that our spending had become unsustainable and the rest is history. We may not have caused the financial collapse but when it came we found ourselves rather unfit to meet the challenge.
Today Ed Balls has begun to acknowledge this not least with the pledge to allow the Office of Budget responsibility to monitor and adjudicate on not only the prudence of our policies but on the effectiveness of our spending. You don’t have to be a high end economist or policy wonk to think we may not have got the productivity and service out of our investments than we should have expected.
But new financial rules really only play at the margins. There is a real possibility now that we will see virtually no significant growth over the next decade. Labour’s desire to soften the blow and to tackle the deficit more gently may be right, but the big effect here may be to avoid tipping us in another recession; it may not be about delivering significant growth.
But back to JP. He is right in the sense that he realises that for Labour these kinds of investments — and redistribution — are what we live for. If we are not about these, then what are we about? However, life is likely to be straight forward for a while. Look at the current state of the economy. It should be a wonderful time to export and develop our manufacturing but the problem is that there is not enough of that left. You can press the economic levers but nothing happens but there is so little there.
If we are to face a decade or so of stagnant growth — and many think we might — then fairness and redistribution will not be achieved through growth. But, we can argue that in times like these, with working individuals, families and communities suffering, the need for fairness and redistribution will be as great as ever.
Which brings us back to he old, old solutions. We will need public investment in public works — mind you will will have to focus on the right ones, such as ‘green new deal’ programmes. But how do we finance them? Slight of hands and stealth taxes will hardly do. We will have to raise the finance for investment and this will have to be trough clear, transparent and progressive taxation.
Recently I saw what happens when taxation in difficult times is not fair and progressive. I was in Ireland, a country where working people are suffering dreadfully. The financial boys may be heralding Ireland’s return to growth but that seems to be increasingly in an economic layer that is divorced from normal life. Life amongst the city’s workers, and in rural areas, is as hard as ever as factory closures continue to lay waste to hundreds of jobs at a time. While Corporation Taxes are held ridiculously low ordinary people are presented with a stream of new stealth taxes. The anger is so real you can almost feel it.
Ireland has two main priorities in moving its economy forward, but funnily enough there is nothing new about them. Low corporation taxes are designed to attract high-tech investment yet this is vulnerable to a double dip recession in the USA. Ireland has some way to go before it can capitalise on the growth in the ‘developing’ world. The second plank is tourism, but the costs of food, drink and everything else are so expensive that you can understand why even in tourist beauty spots you see so few visitors. There is a particular absence of Americans. George Soros and others are increasing vocal in suggesting that Ireland’s programme will not help it avoid some kind of default.
The UK might not be quite in this space but we amy not be that far from it. Labour’s aims and objectives remain our traditional ones. A decade of stagnation will lead to real demands to become more conventional in our tax and spending.
This is why economic gimmicks cannot work and why the public remains so suspicious of Labour and its economic policies. Balls may have begun on the long road to a more conventional readjustment but there is long way to go.
Increasingly there is talk on the right of the next election being fought in a stagnant economy and we’ll see next week if Osborne has taken notice of this. But for Balls, surely it is time to invite Will Hutton back for tea and cakes.
Hutton’s view is that we are a whisper away from a 1930′s-type recession and that we have few ideas that break with the orthodoxy that has not only led us to where we are but which is so unsuited for dealing with the stagnant world. He is not alone. The electorate know that life is hard but I also think they know tea meddling and twisting of economic controls is not enough.
Labour is likely to leave this conference without an economic policy that is seen by the public as one that can meet the real challenges that they are living each and every day.
The AV ballot is proving to be a very strange thing indeed not least as campaigners struggle to generate some real interest amongst the election. goodness knows what the turnout will be but in places where there are no local election — such as London — my guess is that it is going to be very low indeed. Life is easier for the No Campaigners who can simply just rely on rubbishing change. I guess many Yes campaigners had been more optimistic based on the public’s desire for change, but as ever in the UK there is a great danger that apathy wins the day.
So, what is happening? It’s not that easy to work out at the moment not least because to understand where we are you have to deal with seemingly conflicting information and intelligence.
The Plus Side for Reform Campaigners
I’ve been out canvassing regularly since the end of January. Just recently people have started to raise the AV ballot with me. Basically, they want to know is May 5th the date when we can vote on the election system. Of those who raise the issues with me I guess nearly all are positive about change. While some are positively looking forward to change I’ve not yet had anyone on the doorstep who has said that they are against it. I should add that there are few Tories in my area.
The difficulty is that I have no idea whether these comments are significant. Normally if four or five people in a road mentioned the same issue you would take it seriously and reckon that this was a real concern for people. But with this issue I’m not quite sure.
The Political Establishment and NO
But from what I’ve seen so far I’m pretty sure that a change in the system is more popular with the ordinary public than it is with the political world, and I include both the elites and the foot-soldiers here. My constituency Labour Party (Birmingham Hall Green) recently debates the issue and I think that there was one individual present who was strongly in favour. But it should be added that this meeting consisted of hardened, cynical politicos.
There is a danger, of course, that the political establishment are widely out of touch with the people and that many of them are going to have a big surprise when the ballot is announced. But I think the dangers are more subtle than that.
Lukewarm Responses from Constitutional Reformers
The problem with AV is that it really is not much of a reform. Many of those I know who are keen to see reform see this as a bit of a waste of time and, further, they worry that this weak-natured change will simply not catch people’s imagination enough to really deliver a solid majority for it. As a result AV — in political terms — can be seen as quite a divisive move; many reformers see many other issues that should be prioritised first.
Today’s Guardian carries a very interesting piece from Vernon Bogdanor, a long-term campaigner for electoral reform. Boganor correctly, in my view, claims that this referendum offers very little except a big stick to hit the government with.
In essence Boganor is arguing that when the dust settles nothing much will have changed even if the referendum is one.
And he has a point.
The Problem with First Past the Post
We should have had a national debate on representation and electoral systems. Without it even reformers are left feeling flat. But before the political establishment NO brigade start feeling too smug they should consider not just the referendum but the substantive issue. This ballot might fall but it will not mean that somehow the public are happy with their electoral lot.
Any analysis of the problem should start with first past the post. Just what is wrong with it?
FPTP has too problems. Firstly, it doesn’t produce a result — or distribution of seats — that reflects the way people cast their votes either nationally and regionally. As a result we come to the second problem, that FPTP wastes many votes.
As a political purist it seems to me that our system should aim to reflect the priorities of the electorate and also to ensure that as few people as possible feel that their vote is wasted. After all, of people have been bothered to go along and vote then you have to assume that they are determined to express an opinion and that they would like this to be taken seriously.
So, any new system should be nowhere near as cavalier or as wasteful as FPTP.
The Problem with AV
The real problem with AV is that is won’t deliver much in the way of change, it won’t provide a more reflective result and it won’t stop people feeling that there votes have been wasted.
Those campaigning for AV argue that at least a winning candidate can only be elected after securing 50% of the vote. Really? I suppose in some circumstances I would be happy if my second preference actually won, but this is not guaranteed. I might feel that my second preference was second by a long way. But suppose my third choice was the person that won. Would I feel that the result reflected opinion across the board? Would I feel any happier than under FPTP? I doubt it.
But what about the first point above? Would the result be any fairer in terms of the distribution of seats against voter preference?
Anyone seriously interested in this should start with the Electoral Reform Society and especially its guide to different electoral systems. Sadly, the Society has re-written this section following a ballot of its members. This piece lists the benefit of AV. The old listing used to list the downsides as well. Basically, the downside is that AV can produce results that are even more perverse than FPTP, in terms of a result that reflects the distribution of votes.
But while the ERS has moderated ints views Boganor’s piece addresses the problems full on:
(AV) … alters little; and it leaves most voters cold. Yet the issue excites the political class, whose wild and exaggerated claims for and against the system constitute a perfect example of what in the French la politique politicienne, politics for the politicians but not for the people.
AV will not, as its advocates suggest, do away with safe seats. It will make no difference in a constituency where an MP wins over 50% of the vote. Since so few seats will change hands, the system is unlikely to make MPs fight for every single vote; nor will it remedy the geographical imbalance of representation that is perhaps the greatest weakness of the first-past-the-post system. It will do nothing to ensure that Tories are better represented in Scotland and the north of England, or Labour better represented in the south.
Under AV, an extremist party such as the BNP might gain more first-preference votes, so giving it more legitimacy. That is because a vote for a small party will no longer be a wasted vote. But since only a centrist party, such as the Lib Dems, is likely to secure transfers, the BNP would be unlikely to win any seats.
It is the last point that is most significant. This poor scheme might give the Lib Dems something extra. They have to make the most of it I guess but we’re talking about crumbs from the Cameron table really.
Getting More Radical
The complaints about AV are nothing new. The use of AV has ben debated before in several Speaker’s Conference — Boganor quotes from 1931
When AV was debated in the Commons in 1931, one MP said the system reminded him of Oscar Wilde’s comment on Whistler, that he had no enemies but was thoroughly disliked by all his friends. A referendum ought to be a weapon by which the people can make decisions for themselves. The poll on AV, by contrast, is a weapon by which the coalition partners can offload on the public the onus of deciding on a system that neither of them wants.
More recently the issue was dealt with by Roy Jenkins after 1997. Jenkins dealt with the issues by developing AV+, the plus bit being a list system that would be used to provide a greater reflection of voters actual attentions. The Jenkins Report — which still makes interesting reading can be still found online.
Many of those who wish to see a NO vote will have agreed with much that has been written here. But I’m not really with them.
Over the last couple of years I’ve spoken at a number of political meetings about electoral reform, no necessarily in favour of one system or another but about the issue in general. These have been very interesting discussions, ones in which there has been a real exchange of views and one in which people’s views have shifted.
In all of these meetings those who identified with the need for change started at AV. These were Labour Party or Party related meetings and at the time it was widely thought that this was the then leader Gordon Brown’s preference. But as the discussion went on more and more people became interested in STV. STV is the system which most reflects the first preferences of the electorate in general and, as a result, wastes fewer votes.
The Constituency Link
STV makes a big difference to the constituency link with an MP and this is still important — at least — at an emotional level. But I’m more and more convinced that STV is the way forward and the multi-member constituencies can work well. Politicos rage against STV. They say it is too complicated but in reality STV — as it presents to the public — is a very simple system. Understanding how the quota in STV works is pretty simple to any political operator. You won’t need to explain, though, this system to the ordinary punter. They will simply be able to see that the result is fairer!
For a lot of people though the abolition of the strict constituency link is a step too far and for others the radicalness of the change is something to fret over.
So What Do We Do?
So, AV won’t change very much. So why do it? YES campaigners argue that if the opportunity for reform is missed then it will have been missed for a generation. And they are right. But the problem is that AV will not be seen to be a system that has made much of a difference at all!
An Even More Isolated Political Elite
My real worry in all of this is that — whatever the result — we won’t see much change and that the electorate won’t feel any change. This is something to worry about because we cannot be complacent. The public’s unease with the professional political class has not gone away!
In a perverse way you could argue that a vote NO is the way to secure real change as it is more likely to lead to a growing demand for a proper debate for change and the opportunity for people to vote on more than one option.
For my part I shall probably vote YES but I will do so with no great enthusiasm at all. We are being fobbed-off with a mediocre change that will do little to restore faith in our election system.
In finishing on this point I am agreeing with Vernon Boganov. A successful AV vote will probably change little and rather than being a first step of the road to change it will probably see the closing down of discussion and debate over the medium term.
One of the saddest thing about this campaign is the way in which the ERS has switched tacks and has adopted a hopelessly gimmicky tone — ‘ ..If AV is good enough for the Oscars’
However, the really good stuff is still there on their website. Anyone really interested in change should read two publications that are available for free and downloadable.
PR —The Myths is written by Vernon Boganov himself and deals very clearly with much of the nonsense that is aimed at electoral reform.
Review of Voting Systems — is a very interesting piece of work that should be read by all politicians. The report reflects the findings of a piece of work commissioned by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst other things this shows that alternative systems are in no way too complex for the ordinary public to understand! And, the report comes with a good introduction by my old mate Richard Burden MP (Birmingham Northfield).
If you are voting AV I don’t want to discourage you. But don’t kid yourself that it will change much. The battle for a better and more representative electoral system will only just have begun. The public may well see this ballot as a barely significant skirmish.
In Birmingham — like in many big cities — this has been a strange old week or so. For many of us the last fourteen days or so have seen horrendous spending cuts become something of a reality and not simply something that was coming.
On Tuesday afternoon I went to Birmingham Council House to watch the annual budget debate. This was the first time that I have sat through a full council meeting since I stopped being a Councillor a number of centuries ago. It felt like an important meeting. I was there not so much as a voyeur but as someone who has invested much of his life in working in the city on community and voluntary sector projects; I also spent twelve years of my life as a Councillor. It seemed to me that this one day represented the tearing of much of my life’s work.
Before trotting over to the Council House I was at a meeting with a Birmingham Partnership group. It was the last Steering Group meeting of a project I’ve been involved with for a couple of years, a project that looks to support very vulnerable young people who are on the edge of gang-related activity. The project is successful and can demonstrate this through both performance indicators and through the savings it is made to Ministry of Justice budgets but despite the government rhetoric of wanting to assess all projects in this way (eventually) the project will close. But that’s another story for another day.
As I sat in this meeting I realised that nearly all of around the table would not be around in a month or two’s time. There was one of us who would. He works in a statutory service but has relied heavily on the support that other innovative services have given him over the last few years. He and his colleagues have worked hard to develop new services to support vulnerable young people. The problem now is that it is not just one of these services that have disappeared but all of them. As a result there may be serious issues here around the safeguarding of young people. The batten will have to be picked-up by the statutory services that survive, but they too are being slashed. Even for those that had survived the cull it felt like the end of the road.
A couple of days beforehand it had been a major rally against cuts in Birmingham. As an event it had a very different feel to those I remember from the 80′s. It was a warm hearted event and even had a family feel to it. Everyone knew the cuts were inevitable and yet the atmosphere was not one of resignation. I think most present felt that this was the beginning of a long hard road and fight. We protestors set off to march around the pedestrianised shopping streets of Birmingham. Onlookers gave their support. Those of more advanced years offered their support and told us they knew of the difficult times ahead for vulnerable adults. The younger onlookers had never seen such a march in their lives before. Despite all of the ‘problems’ of New Labour it was clear to them that their world — or what they thought of as reality — was being turned upside down.
I was a little disappointed at the turnout from Labour Party members. Albert Bore the Leader of the Council was there as was his Deputy Ian Ward but there was hardly a big turnout from opposition councillors. And while Labour members had turned out individually there was no strong collective showing, no banners or other tactics that would have drawn people’s attention to the fact that Labour was at the heart of the protests. This felt to me to be a real shame. Maybe many felt that protesting against something that was clearly going to happen was not really worth it. But there is power in the showing of solidarity and the good will that this stores up will be important in the years to come.
At the Council budget meeting it was the protesters that disappointed. I’ve been at meetings where the campaigning was so strong that proceedings have had to be suspended and people ejected, so high ran the passions. But outside the protest was muted and dominated by the far left. Inside the chamber there was some vocal criticism but the public gallery was not exactly cramped to over-flowing.
As I listened to the debate of the council I realised just how important it is going to be for Labour, the public and the public sector workforce to forge really strong bonds and to forge them quickly.
Most likely Labour will take control of Birmingham back in 2012 and a similar movement will be seen in the other big cities that have been run by Tories Lib Dems (or both in coalition). Labour will, though, take back control half way through this vicious cuts round and they will have more hard work to do — something that is not lost on Labour politicians.
While the task of taking power is daunting it is heartening to think that many of the achievements of the big cities took place (or began) during the Thatcher years. Despite year after year of slashing budgets Labour councils were able to innovate and to use their creativity to better protect their communities. If we have done it before surely we can do it again?
But, there is a but. After three or four years of these unprecedented cuts our public services will look very different. Many of them will have gone, probably forever — think of the old Victorian Libraries, Swimming Baths and so on.
In Birmingham and across the country Labour will have to work to move forwards with imagination and determination but they will also most likely have to develop a new vision — and new concepts — of how local services look and feel.
In developing new ideas and new work we will have to build on the experiences and the talents of public sector workers many of whom will be cynical and suspicious. A little more solidarity now will go a long way to helping in the future.
The TUC rally in London on March 26th looks as if it will be massive. My message to Labour Party members is that you really should be there. The ordinary people who make up our Trades Unionists will remember who was there supporting them and I fear that will also remember those who were not!
I popped into the Food Hall in Birmingham’s House of Fraser yesterday. Other than the Bull Ring Market this is the only decent butcher’s in the city centre.
The staff were pretty glum as House of Fraser are closing their unit down as well as the deli section. Their jobs will go in a couple of weeks. We had a bit of a chat about everything and what was clear was just how frightened all of them were about the opening up of John Lewis in Birmingham. John Lewis would not really have an effect on a food hall, rather they were thinking about the impact on the whole store.
I guess this is only to be expected in times of recession but it does raise an interesting question. Plan after plan for Birmingham proudly announces that the city could cope with (and therefore needs) another one or two department stores. Indeed, this thinking remains in the current Big City Plan.
A sustainable city requires not only shops and services in the suburbs but outlets in the city centre as well, as that’s where many of us travel every day. But the market seems unable to provide that kind of service or solution.
Obviously, a department store exists to make money. This leaves us with the City’s own indoor and outdoor markets at the Bull Ring. Over recent years some of these traders have responded to the needs of foodies as well as to the needs of ethnic minorities (the two are closely related of course). But the long term future of the facility is not really clear to me. The wholesale markets are in poor condition and will move out of the city centre. But the food markets deserve some real consideration and we should be building on their base and reputation.
Other cities and other places in the UK have recognised that these markets can not only serve an important function in providing affordable food but that they can serve as tourist attractions in their own right. In the last year I’ve been to amazing markets in places as diverse as Inverness and Cork, both of which have great examples of what I mean.
I’m sad to see my friendly butchers go. I’d like to think the better guys in the market have people working on giving them a better and guaranteed future.
In general the idea of the Big Society Bank is not a bad one. Interestingly, the issue about dormant accounts was raised ten years or so ago by a cluster of the bigger voluntary organisations. I seem to remember that they were in constant discussion with the Labour government about this but I think Gordon was too cautious to really put any momentum behind it, which was a real shame.
But there is something odd about the focus with bonds, or social investment bonds as they are becoming known. These work in the following way.
Basically, a service provided shows that they can save the government money in the long term by, for example, preventing offending. A ‘bond’ is established that will see the service develop over say 5 years. After 5 years if the service provider has met their performance/savings targets then the bond backers will receive a cut of the savings to central government.
What often is not appreciated is that the cost of the bond, i.e., the operating costs of the project for the 5 years, are met by someone other than government.
The only real sizeable SIB to be created so far is the one that is being operated in Peterborough Prison and which was pioneered by the St.Giles Trust. Here the ‘bond’ was covered by a consortium of charitable trusts who came together under the Social Finance organisation. The Trusts put up the costs for four years or so and they get their return from government if the project meets the targets that have been set for the lowering of offending rates of prisoners who have been released back into the community.
OK so far?
The problem is that the charitable trusts simply cannot meet the demands (or running costs) of many more bonds. Their funds are finite and anyway they will need to be funding non-governmental work.
So, the Big Society Bank can fill this gap by giving ‘loans’ to meet the operating costs of projects that are part of the Bond system.
But there are a few things to consider.
Firstly, the return on investment has to be paid by government at some point and often the pain falls on a different government department to the one promoting a scheme. Imagine a programme designed to limit crime. Great may say the Home Office. But it’s not the Home Office budgets that will have to ultimately pay, it is the Ministry of Justice.
There are lots of people looking at bond schemes around offending, mainly because the savings are easy to calculate. But the Ministry of Justice is apparently getting jittery. They know that these projects just stack up costs for the future.
Imagine. The Bond programme has been a great success. It comes to an end. But the work needs to carry on. Who funds it now? The original charitable funders were motivated by the desire to show that preventative work is cost effective. Their aim was to show that government should move its spending to preventative work.
I understand with the Peterborough scheme the payout — i.e. the return to the original investors — will be largely met by the Big Lottery. Interestingly, Have not this government committed themselves to taking the Lottery back to its good cause origins and to avoiding using these funds to subsidise mainstream budgets and programmes? But I doubt Big Lottery can keep meeting all of these costs.
Spare a thought for the Ministry of Justice. They have not traditionally funded much of the prevention work but it looks as if they are stacking up long term commitments for this kind of work.
So, while the Big Society Bank may make the initial lone it will have to be the government that pays it back and makes the interest payments! After all, they won’t just be able to let a successful project die when the bond has run out. Or will they?
I’ve been trying to develop a social investment project or one based on ‘calculated savings’. The project I’ve been working on is one which works to support young people who have been judged to be at real risk of becoming involved in gang based criminality.
The project can show that, for those referred, re-offending rates are half the national rates and for those young people who engage positively even less. Further, progress on the project helps those who do reoffend. The project has been able to keep four or five young people out of custody during the last twelve months, in other words progress on the project has encouraged judges and magistrates to avoid a custodial sanction (even when the young person involved may have served a custodial sentence before). The average length of custodial sentences for young offenders is over 11 months. It costs around £70,000 to keep a young person in custody per year. This project’s costs are £200,000 per annum. You can see how this gearing works. Just working on the four young people kept out of custody you have saved the costs of the whole project which might be working with as many as 50 young people. Good eh?
This project has been put together by a partnership of agencies including the local Authority and the Police. It was funded through external government programmes that have come to an end and it is likely that the council will not be able to absorb these costs given the tremendous problems they will face. The work, the experience and skills of the staff might be lost.
So, I’ve been working to see if this Bond type basis could be used to keep the project going. There are a number of problems. We can’t really get access to local or national costs of offending in any detailed way. But worse than that there is nobody in government we can talk to about it! There is nowhere that this argument can be lodged. Government advisers say that they want to be able to follow this approach. We are working along the right lines. But government’s commitment to these programmes will be defined over the next three years. So, this stuff has come too late for us. But surely it will be a good thing for those who follow?
Well, there is something of a basic to understand here. Government may get someone else to meet the cost of the original Bond period, whether that be a consortia of charitable trust or the Big Society Bank. But government will have to meet the returns needed to successful partners. And then government will presumably have to pick up the costs of those schemes that have shown to save them money. And if the performance thresholds have been set too high — and the project is delivering positive outcomes for real people — government may still have to step into the breach.
My point is this. There is no long term substitute for public spending in these key areas. We can get the banks to meet original costs. We can raid Big Lottery to meet the return demands of the original investors, but then we take money away from good causes. But as the principle of this work expands so it will be less likely that the lottery can fit the bill.
There are many good things about the Big Society Bank but it only helps cashflow and puts off the day of public, financial commitment. The Big Society Bank is not magic. It is a bank.
There are likely to be wider implications though. This work will accelerate the ‘Americanisation’ of our public services and drive more work into the hands of the private sector.
I recently met a representative from an international group who manage everything from prisons to old people’s homes. I was quite impressed by their focus in many ways. These kinds of companies, in the US, set up their own corporate responsibility programmes from their own profits. They are likely to move into areas of activity that are traditionally the preserve of the voluntary and community sector, and we should not underestimate the scale the of the programmes that they can create.
But is this what we want? Do we want our social work funded as a bonus to profits that are ultimately derived from the taxpayer? What about accountability? What about the desirability of communities developing their own ideas and accepting responsibility for their own citizens? Will we just see more and more of our public funds sucked into the private sector in the mistaken belief that it provides a better return?
The Big Lottery Bank will be an important source of funding for many voluntary, community and third sector projects. At least it will in the short term.
But we must not be blinded to the ultimate reality that we — the public —ultimately provide the funds that support the Bank — bank contributions should be probably seen as deferred tax.
We can see the whole Big Society project lurch from one unknown to another. It could easily become one huge kind of Arthur Daly style mess.
We need a public debate on public services, the need to pay for them and the need for them to be accountable. And we need to properly model the implications and impact of these schemes.
Remember PFI. Suddenly many of these schemes do not look so hot. Local authorities and health services are lumbered with charges to the private sector that they have to be met because of contracts, meaning that even more of the impact of cuts falls on the rest of their fragile budgets.
There is a lot of work to be done here before we start patting ourselves on the back.
Not only did I spare a thought of two for Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester Council this week, but I felt rather proud of him. Manchester revealed the full extent of the cuts they are to make. No messing around, you could understand where the pain was to be inflicted. There was no sense of hiding either. Consultations with communities, unions and others have been had. And now the leadership was doing what leaderships must. They had taken their decisions and they were standing up to be accountable for them. This is how things should be. Leese was upfront and speaking to both local and national media. In his traditional quiet mannered (yet effective) way he explained how government cuts had fallen disproportionately on this city, one of the most disadvantaged in the land.
Manchester was, of course, attacked but government. They have enough money. They haven’t taken hard enough decisions, especially when it comes to ‘back office’ functions. If we are to seriously deal with the reductions of public expenditure which are, to some extent of another, unavoidable, then this attack from the Tories was cynical and disingenuous. Like all councils Manchester has been delivering its ‘Gershon’ savings for some time now, a formula which sees efficiency savings built into future budgets and programmes. Sudden and swathing cuts like these will take a long time to absorb. You can’t suddenly change the way you run the IT structure of a major organisation, or manage the purchase ledger or any of these things. The government likes to talk about responsibility and everyone being in this together but their treatment of Manchester was one of the lowest and cheapest shots imaginable. However, the treatment of Manchester looks even more remarkable when compared to the absolute chaos in Birmingham, a council run by an alliance of the Tories and the Lib Dems!
In Birmingham there has been no attempt to enter into any kind of serious dialogue with the city and the community. You can sense the desperation and the Chief Executive Stephen Hughes tours community and voluntary sector sharing his concerns that he won’t be able to pay the wage bill.
Hughes faces life with a Leader — Sir Mike Whitby — who refuses to deal with anything other than good news. If there’s a photo opportunity Sir Mike will be there. But bad news? He’s nowhere to be found. There’s no way Sir Mike would appear before the world as did Richard Leese to stand accountable for the decisions that had been taken.
But this lack of responsibility pervades the whole of Birmingham’s political leadership. In the face of dramatic funding cuts many of the Council’s Cabinet members — indeed those who are most right wing — absolutely refuse to mention the ‘C’ word. Cuts are not acknowledged and the refusal to deal with reality is almost at North Korean levels of fantasy.
By all accounts Birmingham’s leading officers have tried hard to get the Council to think about prioritising areas of activity and ending others. Sadly, this is realistic in the current plight. But the response has been to deny that there is any prioritising of cuts or protection of services. This is plain nonsense. We all know some things will have to go. But this administration simply chants its mantra of even-minded ‘efficiency’ savings’.
This means two things that will be devastating to the city. Firstly, communities and citizens, businesses and social care organisations will not be able to have their say in where the axe should fall and where priorities should lie. We might not like to deal with cuts but we know that we have to. Denying a proper debate means that not only does the council not draw on the weight of public opinion but it probably cuts itself off from the imaginative thought that can sometimes make a big difference in some areas. The denial of debate makes a mockery of notions of Big Society. (In Chairman Whitby’s Birmingham nobody must mention Big Society without comments being cleared with him first.) Secondly, the wider community might make the case for the protection of services that cannot be delivered. But we will have had our say and we will have been part of the process. We are more likely to feel like partners rather than victims.
Of course, we know the cuts are coming and we know that they will not be equally spread about. But it will all happen very late in the day with no chance to look creatively at other options and probably not even any chance to think about Big Society type functions. Closures of key services and institutions will be dropped on us all at the last minute. Responsible? Not on your life!
One of our big problems is that both the Tories and the Liberals understand the realities of local government arithmetic. As an out-of-London Metropolitan Borough Birmingham has elections most years (a third of the council up for election every three years out of four). By 2012 they will most probably have lost control of the council and they know it. Which means they don’t have a stake in the future. If he lasts until 2012 Sir Mike will have been Leader of Birmingham for eight years I think. He will know that this hasn’t been a bad innings for someone who is anyway more or less retired.
But it’s not just Tories who play these games.
The Lib Dem Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture is the amiable Martin Mullaney. Initially his Department decided they would try and provide some guaranteed protection for arts projects. They would look at their funding to the arts, take tough decisions up front, make the cuts but then guarantee funding for those who survived for five years in order to give them some security.
There was something to this approach but then it began to all go horribly wrong. It became clear that the only organisations to survive into this protection would be the big arts companies whose value is really measured in terms of what they do for the marketing of Birmingham’s image. The community arts projects that touch much more of Birmingham’s community would simply disappear.
This presented a problem to the politicians. Somebody leaked these plans before the council could mount its PR offensive. Cllr Mullaney panicked. He is up again in 2012. He represents a very arty seat. He feared he would be lynched. So, the five year plans were scrapped. Instead arts organisations were asked to re submit their budgets for a single twelve months. Of course, there will still be cuts but they will be carried out using the salami slicing techniques described above. Of course, the arts community knows that this is just the first of three years of cuts. The devastation will come in the end. This tactic though puts off the debate that is needed about how we balance the needs of the big arts organisations and the needs of the smaller, but more egalitarian, community-based projects. Cllr Mullaney’s new tactics mean that this discussion will probably never happen (not least because the community arts teams are all now facing redundancy — probably because there will be nothing for them to manage in the long term). Cllr Mullaney has cobbled together something that might just see him through the re-election in 2012 without him having to have an honest debate with the sector and the electorate.
In reality, this is just one example of many such slights of hand that are going on in Birmingham as an administration lurches towards the end. Maybe, just maybe they think we might be able to keep the lid on things long enough to (personally) see us through.
So Birmingham is in chaos. The biggest council in the UK — and run by the same alliance that runs the country — simply cannot cope with new realities imposed on them by their national colleagues.
Strangely, central government is very quiet about Birmingham. There are no attacks here on the inefficiency of the administration and on the failure of councillors to take honest and open decisions.
Most likely Labour will take control in 2012 when further cuts will have to be made. It is possible that they may even break apart this sad alliance this May. Back in power Labour will have the unenviable job of dealing with national, Tory, cuts. But we have been here before. During the 80′s and 90′s Labour local government was at its most creative simply because it focussed on the needs and the suffering of its people. In moving forward Labour will have to manage the honest public debate about priorities that this bunch have worked so hard to avoid.
If Big Society is at important than David Cameron (today relaunching Big Society in the Observer) should take a look at the leadership offered by his colleagues in Birmingham. From a Birmingham viewpoint the key values used by ConDem politicians include cowardice, indecision , a distrust of civil society and plain ugly arrogance.
It is time for these people to be swept away.