Andy Howell: Political Futures

A leftish, greenish and localist kind of blog

A New UK? Out of the Wreckage? Beware the Quick Fix!

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Dramatic times led themselves to improbability and unexpected twists and turns. Today, less that twenty-four hours after the polls closed I find myself in agreement with Nigel Farage and I worry that it won’t be the last time.

One voice stood out from the Today programme this morning, the calm voice and analysis of constitutional expert Peter Hennessy. Hennessy recognised the significance not only of the referendum vote but also of David Cameron’s peach this morning. But he pointed out the constitutional change is best properly considered. Ideas have to be real thought through and tested if they are to be durable and to last. A Constitutional Convention would be the basis for doing this but, if course, also a platform for Farage but that shouldn’t put us off some creative thinking. Why?Well, Cameron seems to me to be accelerating the pace of change for England with the basic aim of screwing Labour; how Ed Miliband responds to this will be critical.

What do we know? Cameron will use the Scottish timetable to legislate for change in England, law that will be passed before the next election I presume. Central to his plan will be the reform of the voting system in the Commons. Work has already been done on this by a Parliamentary enquiry but this has now disappeared from the websites. Why? Well, this report suggested that you could deal with Commons voting issues without a complete ban on the Scots voting in England. I doubt that this is what Cameron wants.

It has been reported today that Cameron has the support of Nick Clegg in driving through Commons voting reform by March. I bet he has! Consider this for a scenario.

Labour is the biggest party in the country after the election, but not the majority. Labour is not the biggest party in Scotland. Labour is not the biggest party in England either. The SNP continues to govern in Scotland. And what happens in England?

By default England would then end up with its own First Minister, something Farage has been talking about a lot today. Simply put, the Tories would control key legislation in England. Labour would carry responsible for Foreign Affairs and defence — and critically — Europe. For Cameron, as an insurance policy for loosing the next election, it’s not a bad second option. In effect the Tories could use England to drive change across the wider union.

Am I mad? I doubt it. What the Cameron/Clegg deal tells us is that they are prepared to work with each other again for the next term unless I guess something very odd happens in the election process. Voting reform for England would be difficult to argue against in the light of more power to Scotland. A First Minister (and Cabinet of sorts) for England could look attractive, be relatively cheap and fit into some new governmental framework.

The government will look at a range of other and smaller reforms but these will hardly be radical. Already government has been working with the large cities to create a new deal or new programme of them. These proposals were already gong to be part of the manifesto and are to a large degree already finalised. these proposals will radical but in reality will consist of a commitment to engage in one or two pilots. As for wider issues of constitutional reform these could be left up to Hague to come up with some kind of Royal Commission which kicks a lot of stuff into the long grass.

Cameron will challenge Miliband to commit himself to key change as a result of the commitment to Scotland. Is he bold enough for reform? Or will he just dither Miliband has today called for a wider scale constitutional convention and in many ways he is right, but has he the time to do this properly?

In the run up to the next election Miliband will be challenged directly around a number of constitutional reforms. Voting reforms in the Commons? They have to happen if we give the Scots more _ the English will demand it. A European Referendum? It’s what the people want? We will not only be quickly on the back foot but falling uncontrollably onto the bales!

Labour will have to be strong and insist on the Convention Process to build longer lasting reform. In doing so they will have to consider a deeper set of reforms than maybe they have considered so far. And they will have to revisit voting reform again. One of the problems that Labour faces is that the odds on Cameron pulling his fix off in the short term must be quite good given the current House of Commons arithmetic.

Quite simply Labour will need a bold, imagination and inspirational programme the like that we have not seen for a long time. The Tories may go for a quick fix but Labour will have to dig in for the long haul.  Gordon Brown’s back of an envelope initiative may have won the referendum, but it might have just fucked the Party.

This one will run and run. Even with the Cameron’s fast reforms there will be a lot for Labour to consider and champion.

A focus on the big cities may be welcome but it does not add up to a programme of devolution for the country. The big challenges facing us — including the economic ones — will not be solved by politicians. A Constitutional Convention will allow economists to consider the real challenges of diversity in economic and fiscal policy. Human Rights experts should be involved in thinking through elements of a written constitution. Voting reform needs to be taken out of the hands of Westminster and so on and so on. A Convention process should allow real and deep debate across the country — as I said before, this is what the internet was built for.

But above all else if Labour is serious it has to be prepared to look beyond its own short term interests or concerns. Politicians tend to view any electoral change though the lens of self interest — everything is considered in terms of will it help or hinder our vote?  This is the time to move beyond the conventional and to speak directly to the interests of the people in our regions.

In considering the Convention strategy there is one horrible big challenge for Labour to address. At the moment Gordon Brown is our hero — he personally saved the union with his intervention. But his timetable may turn out to be a disaster. Are we brave enough to argue for more time for considered change? Could we convince an electorate that we could use more time more profitably and still convince them that we would eventually deliver significant and last change?

In the short term the seriousness of the Cameron/Clegg stunt needs to be recognised. We may have to disown brown’s timetable in the first instance to secure something that is more honest, more genuine and longer lasting.

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September 19th, 2014 at 4:03 pm

What Now Scotland? What Now the UK? My Take on the Future

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As I write this the polls in Scotland have just closed and the result has yet to be declared. Regardless of what has been said and written about this referendum, I have just witnessed a political event that is without parallel in my lifetime; I doubt I am going to see anything like it in the future either. The sheer energy of this debate should bring tears to the eyes of any democrat. And yet this was not a political campaign that should in any way be seen as a template for any other.

I am not a Scot although I am fond of the place and its people. I go there rather a lot and have taken a great interest in the debate over the last two years. I read the Scottish Government White Paper from cover to cover.

The White Paper was a fascinating document. On the down side it simply couldn’t deal with many of the very financial issues and concerns, simply because these can only be dealt with in the negotiations after a NO vote. In some ways the very process of this referendum meant that so much focus would be on the heart and not, let’s say, heavy economics. On the plus side, the White Paper presented a vision of a socially democratic state that has long dwindled away south of the border. It was an idealistic and, perhaps, bold vision and there’s nothing wrong with that. I find it quite inspirational that almost half of a nation, anyway, is prepared to reject the resigned, narrow, pessimism of the progressives of England.

And so to the campaign. I am glad that it is over.

Over the last few months I’ve sat and watched some horrible and dreadful stuff. I’ve watched ridiculous taunting and down faced lying. I’ve seen the most hideous stupid and puerile photoshopped campaign material. My social media timelines have been stuffed full of almost complete nonsense. Yes, I know my Scottish friends can talk to me about the depth of the debate and the scale of engagement but much of what I have sen has been unedifying. If this is the shape of political campaigns to come then, frankly, I shudder. From what I have seen both sides have been as bad as each other in this regard.

The formal campaigns themselves have been a mixture of the expected and the unbelievable.

What we got from the YES campaign was more or less expected: heart, passion; idealism; humour and ruthlessness — built on the firm foundations of the SNPs formidable electoral machine, which is by a long way the most effective in the UK.

What we got from the NO campaign was rather bemusing. There was a lack of passion and commitment, yes, but the real problem was that Westminster’s politicians were completely exposed. They simply have no vision of how our Union can be modernised, developed and made fit for the modern age. Did you ever really feel that this was important to Cameron? I didn’t. And Labour seemed to fight the campaign in the last couple of weeks as if it was a key by-election which, of course, it wasn’t. In the end sheer panic led to Westminster’s leaders cobbling together a commitment to constitutional reform, almost literally, on the back of an envelope.

This constitutional debate will now run and run whatever the result. Ever since the collapse of manufacturing there has been a clear need to explore devolution within England. There are big questions to be asked about how to create a financial and fiscal policy that makes sense to the rest of the country and not just to London and the affluent South East. Is England’s future one of continuing depopulation and the relentless rise of the mega city that is London? Arguably, England now has three distinct economies: London and the SE; the North (which might include bits of east London, at least for a while yet) and the South West. These are distinctly different places with very different challenges.

The civic and political leaders of the North, the big cities and of many of our rural areas have been banging on about meaningful devolution for two decades now. They are angered and bemused, in equal measure, by the notion that a new devolution settlement for Scotland can be cobbled together in a few days; classic Gordon Brown. Yet, the realities of Devo Max will be complicated and hard to achieve on their own. Many fear that once these issues are dealt with the English devolution agenda will have begun to drift away again. Yes, you can reform Parliament — and a committee has already done an extensive piece of work on that — but real devolution means far more than who can vote on what in the House of Commons.

A few thoughts on referenda.

I would hope this experience might signal the beginning of he end of Westminster’s fascination with referenda, you know, you can have regional government but only after a referendum. You can have an elected mayor but only after a referendum. Up to now it has been the wisdom of the political classes that you can never win a referendum and, of course, a close NO result might re-enforce that view. Referenda have been increasingly popular for two reasons. Firstly, they help politicians distance them from making difficult decisions and, secondly, because in some weird way they think that they might be a response to the internet age. Real politics relies on solid, deep, debate and political education — something the internet is made for. Maybe the internet might provide us with new ways of helping us share in decision making. Basically we elect people to take decisions and we become disillusioned and disengaged when it appears that they just don’t have the bottle or too little courage to do so.

There is another referendum around the corner which just might be more important than this one. (I know that the Euro referendum is technically a Tory plan but there will be massive pressure on Labour to commit to a vote and I would not be that confident they can resist). Whatever the result here those campaigning to leave Europe will be energised. Just like with the YES campaign many will think the NO campaign is simply constructed, this time, around a group of archaic Tories. In reality there will be many on the left campaigning to leave Europe as well. This debate will be very real, complicated and often quite subtle in its execution. The two David’s might hope that A European Referendum will deal with the Europe issue for a generation but if there is one thing we can learn from Scotland it is that things are unlikely to stop with a single vote. Any vote that is too close to call will see us maintaining our ambiguous relationship with Europe. The European campaign is likely to make the Scottish Referendum look like a school ground disagreement.

Any progressive stance on Europe will demand imagination, passion and commitment to this (sometimes flawed) internationalist cause. Arguably, it would be better to make a real break than to continue as we are. The concept of Europe has real potential to divide us even more. In much of the UK not only is there is not much love for Europe but not much interest in it. In contrast Scotland, Wales and much of the North is much more positive about Europe. We have seen how and fears over the Euroepan referendum have been to the fore in this Scottish campaign.

We will solve nothing — whatever the result tonight — in this nation without real commitment to constitutional reform and to the renewal of our democracy. We simply cannot continue as we are with our archaic institutions and our political parties that fast running out of steam. We certainly should be alarmed at the almost endemic levels of distrust and contempt that many now have for our politicians.

We should take a leaf out of the Scandinavian toolbox. It is time for a big debate. It is time for nothing less than a major constitutional convention, after all the internet gives us the opportunity to discuss, debate, teach and inspire to a greater extent than ever before. Labour’s historians are keen to show how political education and debate amongst service men and women led to the Attlee government of 1945 and all that that government subsequently created. Well, here’s a chance to do something similar for the modern age. Be bold. Go for it. And if the Tories resist, use this as a rallying cry to inspire the real people of this Island.

But finally, a thought for Scotland and a thought on the union. I have many friends in Scotland, some of them English by origin. Many voted YES and many voted NO. I don’t think the thinkers in the YES campaign have ever under-estimated how difficult it will be to build a new state. If they succeed they need to make the construction of the new state a common endeavour.

If the referendum goes down then we should all think carefully. The under 30’s are very likely to have voted YES. The victorious NO campaign are likely to have leaned heavily on older and traditional voters. A close vote — even if it is NO — is unlikely to be decisive. A new generation will bring their idealism and their grievances along with them.

To build a new nation Scotland’s politicians will have to heal deep and bitter wounds. To create a vibrant future for the Union, should it stay intact, our leaders have no choice but to embrace constitutional change and modernisation in ways that would have seemed completely fanciful only a few weeks ago.

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September 18th, 2014 at 9:55 pm

It’s Progressive Alliances that Deliver Lasting Change

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Great leaps forward in progressive politics and economics depend more on genuine partnerships and open conversation than on purely tribal politics.

Think of Labour’s victory in 1997. Blair’s breakthrough came after his Party had spent many years out in the cold, but these were not fallow years. During its long year’s of exile Labour became are more externally focussed movement and benefited greatly from the debates, collaborations and campaigns that ranged across the progressive political spectrum.

Through its long years of opposition Labour renewed itself through a non partisan to politics and this was very much the case at a local level. In my town town of Birmingham the dark years were rich with political debate, campaigns and collaboration. The womens’ movement introduced many to political activism for the first time. CND played a similar role and many who cut their first activist teeth on anti nuclear campaigns then expanded and developed their political views and political activities. In my community Marxism Today worked with the local Labour Activists to run a series of workshops and conferences the both built consensus and established new relationships. Many of those who voted for Blair in ’97 were part of other progressive political movements. And even those who were members of other political organisations and groupings  — and who did not vote for Labour — shared the excitement we all had about change. Blair came to power with a mandate that drew greatly on the ideas and expectations of progressives and who were not simply wedded to the Labour Party.

We face similar challenges today than progressives faced in the late 90’s. It was the recognition of the importance of progressive alliances that made Compass take the major step of opening up its membership to non-Labour members after the last general election. For some — for those too wedded to tribal politics — this was for too dramatic a step. But for others, who were more interested in exploring new directions rather than simply engaging in slanging matches the move has been a very positive one. Debate and discussion across the progressive spectrum has re-energised our politics and helped bring a new creativity to policy debate and discussion. You can see this in the quality of both Compass’s policy work and in its campaigning. Compass’ programmes have led to important initiatives such as the High Pay Commission. It’s work on education is, probably, the most focused and intensive discussion that there is today on the future of our school and education. And now a focus on sustainable economies looks as if it will be equally successful and influential.

The West Midlands is a region in desperate need of fresh economic thinking. Far too much of our policy making focuses on the old world of manufacturing. Manufacturing will remain important to our region but increasingly real economic gains will come from elsewhere. The challenges of the new economy suggest that the low skill base of our community is of real concern. Many of the new investment opportunities that come to our region may simply be out of reach of many in our community.

And then there is the thorny question of growth. Look around our communities, particularly in the inner city, and it is clear that there is much to be done and many more employment opportunities that can be created. Across every community we face real challenges in providing effective and meaningful social care for the elderly and the vulnerable.

It seems increasingly unlikely that the livelihoods of the many will depend on the shrinking, conventional, economy of yesterday.

This Saturday progressives from across the red and the green spectrum of politics are coming together to have a civilised discussion about the future of the economy? What choices are there to be made? What new opportunities can we create though a belief in the power of localised services and community-oriented enterprise? How can we link up the local with the international in ways that we have never done before? How do we change our thinking about investment and about the returns that it can make? How do we make it clear to policy makers that social returns on investment are just as critical to our communities as financial return?

On Saturday Compass and Localise West Midlands come together to discuss a Future Beyond Growth. The meeting offers the opportunity for us to put real momentum behind progressive economic thinking in the West Midlands.

I’ll be there. It would be great to meet you there too.


A Future Beyond Growth

9.30 am, Saturday 5th July.The Innovation Centre, Birmingham Science Park, Holt Street. Birmingham.

More Details Here

Localise West Midlands

Mainstreaming  Community Economic Development Report (Localise West Midlands)


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July 3rd, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Struggling with Service Birmingham and Transformational Change

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Like many local authorities Birmingham City Council (BCC) has a strategic partnership, business arrangement, to support ITC development, procurement and ‘business transformation’. There is nothing unusual about this, many councils have had to develop these contracts with specialist companies simply because they do not have the skills and talents in house to deal with the change demanded by new technologies in particular. Birmingham’s strategic parter is the public services company Capita. Service Birmingham is a joint venture between BCC and Capita.  It is a huge contract, one of the largest of these types of contracts in the country. It is also a controversial contract; it is not difficult to find people who work for the city who are very critical of it.

Local economist professor David Bailey has recently launched a petition on Birmingham City Council’s website calling for the details of the Capita contract to be put in the public domain.  You can see (and sign if you wish) the petition here:

I believe this to be a sensible petition. It does not call for knee-jerk actions like cancelling contracts rather it aims to put contract specs in the public domain so that we can properly judge the performance of Service Birmingham.

The Council’s leadership express bemusement about the petition because they say because the Chief Executive has said he will publish a ‘redacted’ version of the contract at some point. But as I write it has still not been published.

The problem I have with this contract is not that it is so huge and so costly, after all I have no real notion of whether this represents or represented good market value. No, my basic problem with Service Birmingham is that so much of the city’s ITC infrastructure is so poor. Many services remain worryingly clunky and some — lauded as being great innovations — don’ t seem to work for me at all!

Yesterday, in complete frustration, I compiled the video podcast that you can see below. I had been trying to find out information about My local District Committee. These committees are an increasingly important part of Birmingham’s devolution policy. What information there is is very badly presented and exceptionally difficult to find. The site uses no RSS feeds or email mailing lists so that I can automatically be bought up to date with information.  This is internet v. -1 let alone web 3.0

I compiled the video after I had been asked to fill in an online survey form about the website. I completed it fairly and took advantage of the open text box to describe my problems. The system asked me if I was prepared to give them my name and contact details so that they could speak to me. I was happy to do so and gave them both an email and phone number. Eighteen hours later I have had no confirmation email let alone a proper contact.

Now, I may be being too ambitious. So, I’ll give them some time — but I will report back here.

Jump forward to today.

I was watching a web cast of the council’s Governance Scrutiny Committee. Officers were demonstrating the use of their new mobile apps to access council services, report service problems and so on.

As they spoke I downloaded the app and installed it on my iPhone. I then had to create an account and I went back to the website to do this. I started the process and was emailed two separate emails.

The first email contained a link to use to activate my account. I duly clicked the link. I was taken to a page that asked me to to input the temporary password they had sent me in a second email. This I did. Next up, I was prompted to put in a new password that confirmed to certain security requirements. This I did. The system crashed, gave me an error message and told me to login again with my temporary password. I did with the same crash and error. I have now tried 20 time with the same result.

On the error box there was a link to click to report problems. I clicked it and filled in my comments on an email, explaining calmly what the problems were. I then received a third email telling me I would be contacted — but in the meantime, did I know I could create a personal account that would be really useful?


I shall give them a few days to reply and if I don’t get one I shall create a second (shorter) webcast showing how this much lauded feature just does not work.

This is what is annoying me about all of this stuff. The Councillors at this meeting were having a good discussion about the use of new technology to improve the services the council offers to its residents. The officers presenting the information were helpful and informative about what the technologies and these apps could do.

But at the very time this demonstration was happening — and was being webcast to the world — the technology they were talking about wasn’t working !!!

This is what really drives me about Service Birmingham. Just what business are they transforming?

Here is the first (and hopefully the last) video podcast of the horrors of Birmingham’s website.

But be warned Birmingham. If I don’t get a reply from you I shall continue to produce these to show the world just how poor this service can be.


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January 10th, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Personal Memories of Mandela

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The world has lost one of its greatest leadership figures. I can think of a number of great leadership figures but of no other who was, arguably, even greater in the way he led his country into transition through peace and reconciliation than he was in struggle.

I was fortunate to meet Mr Mandela in the autumn of 1993 when he paid a visit to Birmingham; I was a young councillor in the city. Birmingham was an important city to the ANC. There was a strong anti apartheid movement here as you might expect in such a diverse city. Birmingham’s political leader at the time was the veteran Sir Dick Knowles, a committed internationalist who had long supported the anti apartheid movement. Under Dick’s leadership Birmingham responded to Mandela’s release by officially twinning Birmingham with Johannesburg and, arguably more importantly, establishing a technical exchange programme for the staff of both councils. As a symbol of a link between Birmingham and South Africa Dick had agued that the prominent white anti apartheid activist Rev Trevor Huddlestone — author of ‘Prayer for Africa’ should be given the freedom of the city but sadly there was not a political consensus amongst the city’s parties that would enable this to happen.

Mr Mandela’s visit was an amazing few days. I remember a private concert for Anti Apartheid activists held in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall where we all danced the night away to Hugh Masekela, Mirian Makeba and band. I also remember a meeting in the new connection centre with business representatives during which an extraordinary Mandela told the business community how he needed their help in rebuilding his country. But what I remember most affectionately was a far more intimate occasion.

Birmingham had built a new primary school in an area of the inner city which faced many challenges and problems. The school was in Dick’s patch and he insisted that it was named after Nelson Mandela at a time when many had not heard of the man. During the 1993 visit it was natural for Mr Mandela to visit the school.

I was the Chair of the city’s Education Committee at the time. I was rung up by the ANC. The visit — they told me — was not designed as a civic event but a chance for Mr Mandela to meet with the community of the school; he was exceptionally honoured in having this school named after him. Would I mind if I was not invited to the occasion? Of course, I wouldn’t mind. Fine they said. We only want politician present, Sir Dick Knowles. I told the I was happy, not least because he had done far more than myself in keeping the flame of free South Africa alive. Something changed and later in the day the ANC rang me back and said they would, indeed, be honoured if I would join them and Dick at the school.

The next morning Dick Knowles and I joined a small guard of honour to greet Mr Mandela at the school. As promised this was not a civi event. The small guard of honour comprised of a couple of parent governors, a couple of teaching assistant, a couple of dinner ladies, a couple of teachers, Dick and myself. Mr Mandela arrived and took his time moving down the line chatting away with the dinner ladies and teaching assistants as if he had bumped into some long lost friends in a supermarket. Dick and I keep exchanging wondrous glances. Eventually Dick turned to me and said, “I thought I’d seen everything in politics comrade, but I’ve never seen anything like this”.

After we were introduced we all moved to a small community room. There was some singing from the children of the school and some Asian and Irish dancing. There was then tea and cake.

The parents of the school were overwhelmingly drawn from Sparbrook’s Asian community and the women present that day were from the areas large Pakistani and Kashmiri population. The women were very nervous and had no idea what to expect, what to say or do when they met the great man. 

Mr Mandela sat down in an easy chair with his cup of tea and piece of cake. He began to tell us a story. He told us that in his youth it had been the Asian community in South Africa that had first started the freedom movement. It was the Asian community that had both encouraged and inspired him to get involved in the struggle. It was the Asian community who convinced him that this was a struggle that would be won.

As he talked I could see the parents growing in stature and belief. They radiated pride, not pride in themselves but pride for their own communities. For half an hour or so Mr Mandela made these local women believe that he would not have had the strength to carry on if it had not been for them. It was an extraordinary experience to witness.

A lot of people over the last few hours have talked about Mandela’s charisma. I have been fortunate to be in the same small space as some extraordinarily charismatic people, for example, Bill Clinton carries so much charisma around him that you feel you can reach out, touch it and cut it with a knife. But this was not charisma. What Mandela radiated was simply an amazing and pure humanity. Sitting in that community room was a man who was just enjoying himself, a man who was revelling in the company of these local women. I swear he left that meeting more relaxed and more happy than he arrived.

For me it was Mr Mandela’s deep humanity and love of fellow human being that makes him such an extraordinary figure. I will not see the like of him again in my lifetime. His star will surely shine down the centuries to come.

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December 6th, 2013 at 9:48 am

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Raising the Age of Retirement While Dangerously Underestimating the Challenge of Dementia

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Two items on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning caught my attention this morning. What worries me was that there was no attempt to link the two together, despite those linkages being obvious.

The first item was the heavily trailed Autumn Statement policy on retirement age which will see those in their forties and thirties working until the age of 70 and possibly longer. In many ways this might seem sensible but this is a blunt statement which in no way recognises the complexity of the position we find ourselves in today let alone that which will hit us within twenty or thirty years.

Yes, we are living longer, well some of us are. But for those living longer does longevity automatically mean a better quality of life. In reality the lifespan of the population varies dramatically from region to regions, from class to class and from the employed and the unemployed. Retirement age has already become a major issue in Scotland, indeed commitments to resist Westminster trends were given in last week’s White Paper on Independence issued by the Scottish government. What look quite reasonable in the South East will seem pretty desperate in other areas of the nation.

The second item — which should have been connected in both coverage and debate — was the announcement today by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) that the world is woefully prepared to cope with the dramatic rises in dementia that are predicted by a series of major international studies. Serious dementia hits between the ages of 70 and 75 but, of course, a rise in dementia levels will also see a rise in those who are unfortunate to develop the condition before the age of 70. Could it be that natural trends will combine with the new retirement system to conspire to ensure that many more in this country will simply not enjoy any substantial period of retirement.

Coverage of ADI’s statement focused on the unpreparedness of South Asia and Africa in dealing with dementia trends. The ADI report comes ahead of a G8 conference that will concentrate on dementia and which will be held in the UK in the next few weeks. Yet, the sis not simply a problem for other parts of the world.

Authoritative reports here in the UK show that we are seriously unprepared for the rise in dementia care needs that we will see over the next decade. We simply do not have either the domiciliary care services or the residential services to cope. And we are facing a new serious of worrying national divides that policymakers of all political persuasions must address shortly.

The vast majority of Residential Care in the UK 9 (over 80%) is provided by the private sector. Residential infrastructure development and refurbishment is funded through institutional investors and is increasingly international in nature. Yet thee figures do not tell the whole story. In the South East of England over 80% of residential care is self funded by residents. In the North of the nation this figure is reversed with the vast bulk of care costs being funded by local authorities and health trusts. As a result of continuing restrictions in public expenditure spending from local government and health continues to be under pressure, commissioning rates driven down and as a result basic care standards are being compromised.  In many establishments that have a mix of self funders and public funded residents the self funders are actually subsidising public funding places a situation which continue for long without it becoming a new national scandal.  

The increased pressure on public expenditure means that we are now seeing a new North/South divide in the country. It is now far more difficult for private (and not for profit) care providers to raise money from investors to build new facilities, and to refurbish existing ones, in the North. Local government — which has a power to ‘shape’ care markets is simply not able to embark on the long term strategic relationships with care providers that is regarded within the sector to be critical. In the  more affluent South East key decisions on the shape of residential proviso are being taken in Board Rooms and in banks across Europe, rather than in the policy offices of local government or health.

It would be nice to think that, in the future, we will need to place few people in care and to ensure that they are cared for in their own homes. However, domiciliary care services are under just as much pressure and in the coming months we are likely to see the first major domiciliary care agency float on the stock market and no doubt investment patterns will begin to mirror those now being seen in the residential world.

But when we look at the predictions for the rise of dementia in the UK it is without doubt the case that we are going to be massively short of residential beds. People will enter residential care later in life, yes, but their care needs will become more severe Not only do we not have the residential places we need in the planning pipeline but we don’t have the means to provide for the additional nursing care that the dementia trends suggest we will need.

A few months ago I was in Worcester to hear a fascinating presentation by Professor Dawn Brooker, one of our national experts on dementia care, to the charity RESEC of which I am a trustee.  RESEC is dedicated improving the quality of research in specialist and elderly care. What was clear from listening to Dr Brooker is that the dementia care challenge is greater than even that sketched out above; it will impact on a far greater swathe of UK society than that which I have focused on here.

RESEC held its AGM in Westminster a few weeks ago. Attendees were concerned about the lack of political progress in developing a consensus in ageing policy in the UK. The movement for a consensus across the political spectrum seemed building some momentum after the last election but discussion between Party leads have broken down. It looks as if social care is to be a major issue at the next election and that political arguments will run deep yet, in reality, few expect much long term difference in the policies of the individual policies.

The debate about social care in this country needs to be granted greater importance over the next parliament and our debates about retirement and ageing need to be better integrated.

Other western nations are adopting different policies on both retirement and ageing. Here in the UK ‘commentators’ are arguing that the policies of others remain unsustainable but, and here’s the rub, other nations seem happier with higher levels of taxation partially as hedge against these demographic challenges.

Here in the UK we face a simple challenge which is not simply to talk about the future of social care and retirement but to develop a real commitment to pay for it.

This morning my feelings are with the young. They will not have the benefits, income or security of the baby boomers who are today making our policy.

Taking these two news items together I can’t help thinking we are on track to further institutionalise our national complacency over ageing. This is one debate that won’t go away and today’s announcement should not be seen as a definitive statement rather as a simple staging point along the line of a long and soul searching national discussion.

RESEC — Research in Specialist and Elderly Care

Professor Dawn Brooker, Director of the University of Worcester Association for Dementia Studies

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

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December 5th, 2013 at 9:27 am

Posted in Ageing,Health

The Problem with the Pupil Premium — Dealing with Practical Problems

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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.


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September 20th, 2012 at 8:33 am

Selling the Family Silver — Selling Your Family Silver

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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.

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September 5th, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Local Government

Why Academies are Bad News for Politicians Locally

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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.

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April 16th, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Education

Just Who, or What, is Politics in Brum?

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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

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March 22nd, 2012 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized