Local authorities are forever saying they want more powers and more freedom. They often turn out to be less good at explaining what exciting things they would like to do but which they are unable to pursue at present. In a similar vein, a reason for lack of enthusiasm for Mayors is the absence of a story about the kind of transformational change that only someone with the personal mandate of a Mayor would be able to achieve.
Consider these points:
- Places have different assets and needs and therefore require different policies to thrive
- People are attracted to, and excited by, places which feel like they have a distinctive identity (unless the distinction is obviously negative)
- Diverse practices are good for systems as they foster learning and innovation and also provide signals which direct people with particular strengths and enthusiasms to the right destination
- In many ways, despite social progress, current ways of living are dysfunctional both in terms of social good and individual life satisfaction.
Then add some context
- Public sector austerity
- Continued support for devolving more power from the national centre
- In most areas outside the South East little faith that a rising national economic tide, if and when it comes, will be enough to turn their places around.
Put these together and the case grows for what might be called ‘experiments in living’. The idea is that local leaders float inspired ideas for how their place might choose to be very different from other places, not just in the policies they pursue, but the goals they set.
Two small examples are the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma who decided his city would lead American in losing weight and Transition Town Totnes, which is exploring alternative economic models with widespread community engagement and commitment. In both cases the model of change relies on a high level of public commitment to the goal and its delivery; there is no question of politicians being able to do it on their own.
Writing in the week of local elections I am aware that every Party claims to have a local vision but generally when these are big they are vague and when they are specific, they are small (all three major Party leaders’ speeches at their conference this year will be characterised by this dispiriting big/vague concrete/small dichotomy).
Instead we need local leaders to start to challenge their communities with big, concrete, long term aims. Here is the kind of thing that might cut the mustard:
- This place aims over the next ten years to move to a standard 32 hour week along with a commitment to genuinely full employment.
- This place aims to reduce residential care to a bare minimum and to make caring for our vulnerable neighbours something to which all residents commit and in which all residents play a role.
- This place aims to make art and creativity a specialism for all our public services and the core of our local economy.
- This place will abolish child poverty.
Just imagine how much more interesting and creative England would be if every major town and city had set itself a significant and ambitious goal of this kind.
Actually, I don’t think these are the most exciting of ideas so I challenge my reader to come up with her own.
This is non-expert post on a topic about which many people have very deep knowledge and very strong opinions. So, please, feel free to tell me why I’ve got it wrong.
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt may feel that the tough questioning he got yesterday on corporate tax was a price worth paying for promoting his company and book. But the news headlines focussed on tax, confirming Google’s reputation is now a great deal more mixed than a few years ago, when politicians of all varieties were queuing up to bask in its glow.
I wrote some time ago about the corporate tax issue and can only wish George Osborne luck as he seeks to agree an international approach to making multinational companies pay their fair share, something which will, one suspects, be made harder by the Coalition’s general antipathy to international co-operation in areas of tax and regulatory policy.
But tax is the least of my three concerns. The second is the potential for Google free riding, especially on non-profits. I recently saw the deeply impressive Salman Kahn, founder of the amazing Khan Academy, talk at the LSE. The Academy is currently running at six million students watching lectures every month and this is certain to rise rapidly in the years to come. Now, I have no idea what the information gleaned from these six million users is worth to Google in terms of revenue gained from advertising text books, on-line courses and other education related goods. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding Google’s good works such as its free ad words for non-profits, there is surely something problematic about a massive corporation making money from content generated entirely for charitable purposes. By the way, the same thing applies to the information gleaned from the ninety million on-line views of RSA Animate. Surely it is not beyond the wit of Google’s creative team to find a way of returning to non-profits the money which their content has made for Google and their commercial partners.
Third, Google is effectively a monopoly. We are so used to the idea that the internet opens up possibilities and disperses power we can fail to see another characteristic – the way single platforms tend to dominate core markets: Facebook and Twitter for social media, Amazon for retail, YouTube for free content, eBay for peer to peer sales, even Wikipedia for reference. Having had a tiny dip to 89%, Google is once again providing the engine for more than nine in ten on-line searches in the UK. The rise of the monopoly platform is partly due to network effects (platforms have more utility the more people use them) but also the use of big data to create algorithms which enable big players to continuously refine their product and maintain or expand the distance between them and any new entrant.
All these organisations will say that their market domination is deserved and that they use their power responsibly to the benefit of mankind (an argument I am willing to accept from Jimmy Wales), but these have always been the defences of monopoly and they don’t change the well attested theory that sooner or later monopolies lead to an abuse of position and dysfunctional outcomes.
Which brings me back to Eric Schmidt – his defence yesterday had two parts: the first was ‘everyone else does it’, which is basically an abdication of ethical responsibility; the second was, ‘we shouldn’t pay tax because we provide a service which helps the economy’. On this basis car manufacturers shouldn’t pay tax because people use their cars to drive to their jobs, nor should Greggs the baker because people need pasties and sausage rolls to give them energy to work and so on. Who in this world of collective irresponsibility pays for the social provision (education, infrastructure, policing, etc) which is integral to the reasonably peaceful social context in which companies can operate and prosper?
We have created an implicit pact with Google. Because we find its services so useful we accept not only that a massive global corporation knows more about us than we know about ourselves (imagine for a moment how you would react if a stranger came up to you in the street and said ‘I know more about you, what you like, what you do and what you are likely to do next than you know yourself’), but that it can use that information to gently manipulate us for its own enrichment. This is probably more power than the human race has ever given to any private organisation.
If this relationship is to endure and develop to our mutual benefit and if Google is to survive further challenges to its reputation, then the corporation needs to be seen to be taking its responsibilities incredibly seriously. The intellectually threadbare arguments mustered yesterday by Mr Schmidt do not augur well.
From time to time in this blog I rehearse arguments I intend to use in a forthcoming speech; partly to prepare my lines but also to see if readers will offer helpful nudges. This evening I will be stepping well outside my comfort zone and speaking on the topic of manufacturing to a conference of business leaders who work in the sector, and bankers who help finance it. I am not on until quarter to ten so I suspect my audience will want bold brush strokes not intricate policy detail, which is just as well.
As an outsider I have perceived advocacy for manufacturing as a mixture of idealistic yearning and pessimism. We generally view manufacturing positively, associating it with a golden past when Britain was the workshop of the world, but we also assume that the days have long passed when we could see ourselves as significant global players or believe that manufacturing is an essential part of our overall economy.
Arguably, Government policy reflects these feelings, as well as a continuing scepticism towards economic interventionism. Responding to our affection for manufacturing the Coalition has pursued a number of policies which favour the sector, and particularly at its leading high tech edges, but has also resisted the kind of full blooded national commitment to manufacturing which formed the centre piece of President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2012:
‘So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed’.
Ambivalent attitudes to British manufacturing are reinforced by a mixed reality. On the one hand, Britain remains a relatively important manufacturing nation – around the eighth or ninth largest producer in the world depending on what metric is used and in certain sectors, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals (including life sciences) and automobile, we have genuine strength. On the other hand, manufacturing continues to be in decline in terms of our global ranking and there is little sign of any significant bounce back in terms of activity levels. Most depressingly, British manufacturing seems to have taken very little advantage of the effective devaluation by a quarter in the international value of the pound which took place after the credit crunch. The statistics for February this year show the UK running a trade deficit on goods of close to £10 billion pounds a month.
The manufacturing sector is diverse (indeed in many areas the divide between manufacturing and services is fuzzy) and the arguments about it complex and long running. There are few easy answers. So tonight I will be in exhortation rather than analytical mode.
The supporters of manufacturing need to make their case in terms not just of the needs of the sector but in terms of a broader account of the kind of economy and society we would like to exist.
We should start with the evidence of what economists call ‘spillover benefits’, whereby investment in manufacturing has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity in other firms. These externalities provide a basis for justifying preferential tax and allowance regimes for manufacturing. Given how important jobs are right now it is also important to argue that – counter to the common view – that areas of rising productivity need not also be areas of declining employment; if productivity gains lead to cheaper, better products it can also lead to more jobs. Also, manufacturing investment generates jobs in other sectors. As Obama Advisor, Gene Sperling, puts it; if an auto-plant opens up, a Wal-Mart can be expected to follow. But the converse does not hold – Wal Mart openings don’t tend to bring auto plants in their wake.
When manufacturing was collapsing in the early eighties – a poignant memory today – there was a view that many areas had become too dependent on certain industries. But in the wake of the economic slump and with the international desire to tame financial speculation that argument can be flipped. For the economy as a whole we need as a matter of wise policy to foster diversity in activity and jobs and right now that means strengthening manufacturing. As well as economic balance, manufacturing can also contribute to a more balanced spatial strategy – it is a cheaper to build factories in the north than the overheated South East.
This is a blog post not a speech so I will make the other points in brief:
As Jaguar Land Rover exemplifies, manufacturing – more generally than services – has a powerful role in the projection of national image of excellence and creativity.
While the UK has a weak self-image in manufacturing, we pride ourselves on our design skills. But modern manufacturing, with a growing emphasis on innovation and customisation can involve very close working between designers and producers. Strong domestic manufacturing and strong design are complimentary.
In terms of global trade, as a forthcoming RSA report will argue, the combination of rising labour costs in developing nations and the possibility over the medium term of higher transport costs is starting to shift the argument decisively away from outsourcing. A number of high profile American firms – including General Electric and even Apple – have announced their intention to bring manufacturing investment and jobs back to America. The big challenge for medium sized firms may be less about expanding exports and more about the capital, know-how, networks and confidence to build factories in other countries.
Also on an environmental tack, while manufacturing has in the past been associated with various forms of pollution, future growth areas of investment, innovation and jobs include green industries and also re-engineering manufacturing processes to minimise waste – the subject of the RSA’s Great Recovery project.
Finally, and this is a matter of conviction not evidence, understanding how things work and being confident about making and inventing should be an important part of national and individual character. It is clear that access to skilled workers is the critical factor in manufacturing competitiveness. This is, of course, about bright students choosing science, maths and engineering and about the need for more and better industrial apprenticeships, but it is also about a wider recognition of making stuff as an activity which combines creativity, analytical and problem solving, and kinaesthetic skills, and which provides distinctive and deep forms of satisfaction and fulfilment.
Ultimately this is why the manufacturing sector has to choose to tell a positive story. When people complain, the assumption is that they are not enjoying themselves. However, hard the challenges facing manufacturing we need people (especially the young) to believe – as they readily do about sport and music – that investing time and commitment to developing manufacturing skills pays off in enjoyment and pride as well as the possibility of a career and good income.
I have written a series of posts:
about the care crisis, what it comprises, why it is worsening and why it is hard to remedy. Today, in the last of the series, I suggest four sets of ideas which might together provide a platform for a long term care strategy.
As I said in my last post, we need our leaders to recognise that there is a care crisis, not simply a crisis for government and policy but for society, our norms, responsibilities, and expectations. We need to set out an ambitious ten year plan to take us to a new care settlement in 2025 (roughly coinciding with the peak of the baby boom bulge in elders). In essence this is about guaranteeing more dignity and support for care recipients and carers but we also need to assert a core aim of policy as to make it easier and less disadvantageous for people (and this should not be taken to mean mainly women) to provide care to their own loved ones, rather than paying other people to do all or most of it.
We must use existing spending on older people to liberate funds for specific and guaranteed improvement in care. The other aspects of my strategy are primarily about using resources more wisely and generating new commitment and effort to improve care, but nevertheless, any shift in direction will involve transitional and on-going new costs. But these costs must not come from younger generations, which, as a number of people including David Willetts have argued, are already in many ways facing a much tougher situation than those who came before them. So new funding for care should come from wealth testing some universal benefits for older people, from further reducing tax breaks on pensions and by going further than the Coalition’s initial step to increase inheritance tax levels.
We must – and this is hardly an original thought – achieve a better integration of health and social care and public health interventions. Everyone from Andy Burnham to the recent House of Lords report argues for this which suggests the barrier is less principle and more implementation. My solution – which may be simplistic – would simply be to transfer the budget for commissioning all health care for people over seventy and registered as disabled, apart from accident and emergency and elective surgery, to local authorities on the strict condition that, as commissioners, councils cannot also be service providers (for either health or social care).
We need a powerful publicly funded but independently governed agency/platform called something like ‘We Care’. The service would oversee my proposed ‘national care experience’ through which all young people between 14 and 19 are expected to undertake a good quality hundred hours care placement. The service would oversee or incorporate Skills for Care and work to accelerate the development and take up of care apprenticeships particularly at level three and above. In time, all workers in the sector would be expected to be on, or have completed, a level three care apprenticeship or equivalent training package. ‘We Care’ would also spread good practice and innovation and, particularly seek to take what works to scale (possibly through a strategic partnership with NESTA and the Big Lottery Fund). Particular emphasis would be placed on the way professional care services in the public, private and voluntary engage and develop volunteers. From the outset ‘We Care’ would have capacity to work with successful UK care providers to encourage them into international markets in what is a growing sector worldwide. ‘We Care’ would also advocate a wider policy and societal sensitivity to care needs, for example in the design of products, services and housing.
Because the care crisis is so huge and multi-faceted we need a strategy with all these elements; honest and brave leadership, new social norms, fair funding, fundamental service reconfiguration, institutional innovation, strategic co-ordination. In these sceptical, anti-statists, times there isn’t much appetite for grand plans but incrementalism simply won’t move us from an already unacceptable care situation which is only set to get worse.
A week ago news headlines were focussing on a report on Pakistan from the House of Commons International Development Committee. From a wide ranging report the issue which received almost all the attention was the weakness of the Pakistani income tax system. As the report’s summary concluded: ‘We cannot expect the people in the UK to pay taxes to improve education and health in Pakistan if the Pakistan elite is not paying income tax’.
The committee also concluded that the UK should continue to give aid to Pakistan, reflecting both its levels of poverty and its importance in relation to international politics and security. Some 60 million people (one in three) in Pakistan live in poverty. Half of all adults, and two out of every three women, are illiterate. One in 11 children die before their fifth birthday, and 12,000 women die in childbirth every year. Nearly half of children under five suffer from stunted growth, which affects brain development and reduces their ability to learn. Pakistan has had repeated crises such as the floods in 2010 and 2011. Entrenched poverty is denying opportunities to millions of people and undermining Pakistan’s long term stability and prosperity. Tackling poverty and building a prosperous democratic Pakistan will help not only millions of poor Pakistanis, but will also improve stability in Pakistan, the region, and beyond.
There is also a strong link between the UK and Pakistan based on imperial history but, more important now, the over a million members of the British Pakistani diaspora.
Issues around Pakistan and the diaspora featured in a set of events we held jointly in 2011 with the web-site and network The Samosa and London Metropolitan University. A recurrent theme of conversation has been the need to project more positive images of Pakistan and to seek both to celebrate the role the diaspora plays in supporting community-based charitable efforts in Pakistan and to encourage more and deeper links.
Today on the RSA website we taking the project to the next stage. We are providing a platform for young filmmakers and citizen journalists in Pakistan who have produced short films highlighting the work of community activists, charitable organisations and social innovators. We are partnering universities in Karachi and Lahore and UK universities including London Metropolitan whose film school students are contributing to the project.
Browsing the films, I have been impressed by what I have seen of civil society and welfare organisations in Pakistan and the hard work done by many them in the face of very challenging circumstances. We are well aware of the problems of violence, poverty, extremism and conflict in the country. Yet clearly there are also resilient social and welfare structures that manage to function in the most difficult of circumstances such as the work of the Edhi Foundation and The Citizens Foundation.
For more detail on this whole topic it’s worth a listen to Anwar Akhtar who set up the Samosa speaking as part of the BBC Radio 4 ‘Four Thought’ strand.
Although it has taken a lot of work to get to this stage (we are grateful for support from the Foreign Office), whether the project goes any further now depends on the reaction we receive. If the films generate interest and enthusiasm our hope is that the next stage might have two elements. The first is strengthening links and conversation between charities and social enterprises working in Pakistan and those operating out of the British Pakistani diaspora. These organisations will be working in very different circumstances but the sense is that on both sides there is scope for greater mutual support and sharing of experiences and ideas. Second, we would like potentially to explore the scope for developing some kind of crowd funding mechanism to enable members of the diaspora (and anyone else enthusiastic about progressive change in Pakistan) to invest in the most interesting social enterprises emerging in Pakistan.
This is a small scale and experimental project for the RSA but it speaks to our desire to have a more diverse Fellowship and to be more international in our focus. We will know in a couple of weeks whether there is a basis for taking the project forward so please have a look at the films and pass them onto your networks.