Setting out a future vision for local government: local authorities at the heart of every local community

Local Government faces an unprecedented series of challenges and will have to respond to an increased level of need whilst at the same time working within vastly reduced budgets. It has never been more vital that the sector sets out a positive and compelling vision for what local government will look like as we move forward into an unknown future. It was therefore interesting to read the joint effort by KPMG and CPSP setting out what the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ will look like. Yet by the end of the document, a feeling of pessimism set in about the narrowness of the vision that they set out and the way in which it reinforced rather than sought to challenge prevailing public policy orthodoxies.

The paper consistently espouses the need to ‘explicitly manage the council as a business’ and operate with a ‘board of shareholders mentality’. Yet surely key local government services from leisure centres to street cleaning benefit the whole of society, not just individual service users. Stated very simply, the problem with managing a local authority as if it is a business is the fact that it isn’t actually a business! Whilst the private sector can rigidly focus on delivering shareholder value, local authorities have a wider strategic role in ensuring the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of their local communities. Without reading too much further than the Executive Summary, it became clear that the ‘Brilliant Local Authority’ would be hampered by its lack of core capacity to deliver on some of these broader policy objectives.

Does it matter who delivers services?

The idea that local authorities can be agnostic about which part of the economy delivers service provision or that councils should simply be strategic commissioners is a very worrying one. Although local councils have never been the sole provider of public services, there is a clear need to retain a strong core of directly delivered services in order to ensure that the capacity to intervene in local communities is retained. Without this capacity, dealing with complex strategic issues from climate change to flood management will become reduced to a disparate set of contracts.  

The notion that local authorities should enthusiastically cede control to others is also a problematic one. Of course, empowering local communities is important; but decentralisation must not become an end in itself.  And is not the case that markets can be every bit as disempowering as large bureaucracies? Maybe the answer lies in a commitment to supporting and working with local communities to add value to the way in which services are delivered rather than divesting responsibility onto others. 

What are the implications for local democracy and accountability?

Local Government is based on the notion of an effective local democracy and the paper specifically states that, ‘local government is by definition political’. Yet by depoliticising service delivery and conflating commissioning with the procurement process, politics is actually removed from local government. Not least in the way in which local democracy is damaged by reducing the role of elected members to handing out contracts.  It could also be argued that the role of politicians in shaping the wider local place can only ever be an aspiration, if local authorities go down the road of systematically removing the strategic levers and mechanisms of service delivery.

It is welcome that the paper raises vital issues such as place shaping, public value and the political nature of local government. Yet as this article argues, the policy framework set out within the paper will remove all the capacity from local authorities to actually act on these issues.  There is therefore an urgent need to set out an alternative non prescriptive vision emphasising key principles such as public value, local democracy and collective citizenship. It would be useful for stakeholders across the sector to look at and contribute to the concept of the Ensuring Council, which seeks to deliver services in accordance with a set of values and democratic practises, responding to changing circumstances in a way that is value rich rather than value less.

Local Government is now clearly at a tipping point where it must set out its vision for the next 10, 20 or even 30 years. However, this should be based on a vastly different vision to the one set out in the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ report. Local authorities have a duty be at the heart of every local community, delivering those visible frontline services that the public rely on. This is of course very different to reducing citizens to shareholders and treating public services like private businesses.

Posted in Commissioning, Localism, Spending cuts | 2 Comments

Impact of Planning Circular 1/06 on Gypsy and Traveller Site Provision

Over the past five years I have undertaken research on the impact of planning guidance Circular 1/06 on site provision for Gypsies and Travellers.  This blog summary outlines the key findings and recommendations in a fuller research report, which examined the impact of Planning Circular 1/06 on the delivery of sites for Gypsies and Travellers.  It is part of ongoing analysis of planning appeal data gathered over three tranches of research activity.  Initial findings and thoughts are published early in this report as part of a quick response to the draft National Planning Policy Statement – Consultation on planning for traveller sites – which was published by Secretary of State Eric Pickles on 13th April 2011. 

The research involved examination of 100% planning appeal cases during three tranches and four distinct research periods:

  Time frame

Number of cases

Period 1 1st November 2005 – 31st January 2006 (Tranche One – pre Circular 1/06)

75

Period 2 1st February – 30th April 2006 (Tranche One – post Circular 1/06)

54

Period 3 1st February 2007 – 20th January 2009 (Tranche Two – ‘embedded Circular’) 

231

Period 4 27th May – 31st December 2010 (Tranche Three – post revocation announcement)

45

   

405

Findings

 Although a wide range of factors was considered across all cases, which were decided upon by a number of different Planning Inspectors, three key areas seemed to be discussed most: 

  1. Unmet evidenced need and lack of alternative sites
  2. Weighing up impact on the Green Belt
  3. Health, education and other personal circumstances

The Planning Circular 1/06 research found that the number of permissions given at appeal increased substantially (from 40% prior to implementation of Circular 1/06 to 70% during the ‘entrenched period’ of implementation of the Circular).

 The majority of permissions given during this ‘entrenched period’ were temporary permissions.  Inspectors’ discussion on reasons for decisions showed that weight was given to evidenced need for more sites and lack of alternative accommodation.  Appeals were being allowed on a temporary basis to stop the gap.

 Since the Secretary of State’s announcements to revoke Regional Strategies and Planning Circular/ 1/06 there has been an impact on number of temporary permissions allowed at appeal.  Inspectors’ decision reports show that the revocation announcements were considered and in some cases, weight was given to this.

 Whilst there is clear evidence that Circular 1/06 did have a positive impact on the number of permissions (albeit temporary) given for Gypsy and Traveller sites, this should not be seen as a system skewed to advantage Gypsies and Travellers.  Instead the Circular levelled the playing field for this traditionally disadvantaged group. 

Key Recommendations

  1. Equality Impact Assessments should be undertaken on the cumulative effect of the combined loss of Regional Strategy targets for pitch requirements, together with the withdrawal of Circular 1/06 and the reduction in available government grant funding for site development.
  2. Government should consider retaining the word ‘normally’ in the guidance on consideration of site applications in Green Belts.  This would allow decisions to be made on a case by case basis and where it is the most appropriate and least contentious location for a site: Green Belt could be considered as an option.
  3. The Government should not remove the obligation for councils to undertake GTAAs specifically from the Planning Guidance, as this may mean councils do not update and use this source of evidence but instead rely on other sources – such as count data – which are not so robust.
  4. Government should retain the imperative for Planning Inspectors to give ‘substantial weight’ to unmet evidenced need and lack of alternative accommodation, in Planning Guidance.
  5. Whilst cuts to Government grant for sites fall within a wider context of cuts, the Government should be mindful that there is a business case for funding sites to negate spend on dealing with unauthorised encampments and developments.  There is a social case for facilitating sites to enable Gypsies and Travellers to access healthcare and education.
  6. Alternative approaches to site provision, where appropriate, should be supported and facilitated by the Government through matching development funds from charitable organisations, for recyclable grants for schemes such as Community Land Trusts.  Currently applications for funding are made through the Traveller Pitch Funding Stream of the HCA National Affordable Housing Programme; it may be appropriate to make additional funding available for this innovation.
  7. Care should be taken in political debate on Gypsy and Traveller issues to avoid stoking contentious and discriminatory rhetoric in the popular press and in community debates on site provision.

 Written by Jo Richardson

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Getting in touch with your practice

 For the seasoned observer of public policy, it is perhaps surprising to open any discussion with such a radical admission that we know very little of the everyday practices, routines and activities of policymakers.[1] You might expect policy analysts and researchers to have a detailed knowledge of what policy-makers actually do on a day-to-day basis in their offices and wider working environment. Yet, we tend to approach the study of policy armed with pre-existing models, patterns and guidance into which we then try and force the ‘messiness’ of the daily twists and turns that punctuate the multiplicity of norms, rules, and objects that we call ‘policy.’[2] Too often, as John Law suggests[3], we try and mobilize the ‘mess’ out of our own accounts of policy, acting, to use the very apt expression of Helen Sullivan, like ‘truth junkies’[4]. So, what if we were to try and do the opposite? What if we were to try and capture the ‘messiness’ of the practice of policy-making, of what practitioners do? What might we learn if we started from there?

 It was these very questions that a recent ESRC seminar series on policy as practice sought to answer.[5] In generating a dialogue between researchers and practitioners, the series confirmed in many ways the continuing difficulty faced by social scientists in formulating concepts of policy and practice that make sense to those we think of as policy-makers. For those involved, which included this author, it made us newly aware of the difficulty practitioners themselves – especially those at the local level – have in recognizing that what they do is to make policy. At the same time, we were exposed to ‘thicker’ conceptions of agency; accounts of making policy that surfaced the social, meaningful and affective dimension of the practices of policy-making. We rediscovered the institutional purchase and political nature of often very mundane policy instruments and artefacts of policy-making, such as white papers, meetings and minutes, and commissions of inquiry, as well as the importance of understanding the construction of particular policy ‘personages’ and their associated roles, be it the policy consultant, the evaluator or the civic entrepreneur.

What this all suggests is that we require a new way of thinking about how we study policy – one which through its focus on the practices of policy making re-engages with the benefits of empirically-driven ‘thick descriptive’ case studies and the value of practical wisdom or judgment.[6]  In so doing, we need to break down long-held distinctions between academics and policy-makers so as to generate new ways of co-producing knowledge in, and for, policy.  Such shifts in our approach hold out the prospect of developing ways of ‘talking’ policy that not only speak to, and resonate with, the daily activities of policymakers, but also begin to rebuild our trust in practitioners as collaborative partners for innovation and improvisation.[7] Rather than continuing to proclaim the new public management mantra which views practitioners as instrumental agents seeking to defect from external regulation, perhaps we might be better off appreciating practice as an active and potentially positive ingredient in the world of policy making.

See also

Should you wish to read more on the findings of the ESRC Policy as Practice seminar series, you can find a collection of articles from the series in a forthcoming special issue of Evidence & Policy put together by Richard Freeman, Steven Griggs and Annette Boaz. This blog draws heavily on this collection.

 Notes


[1] Wagenaar, H. (2004) ‘’Knowing’ the rules: administrative work as practice’, Public Administration Review, 64 (6):643–56.

[2] Freeman, R., Griggs, S. and Boaz, A (2011) ‘The practice of policy making’, special issue: approaches to practice, Evidence & Policy, 7(2): 127-35.

[3] Law, J. (2006) Making a mess with method, version 19th January, available at www.  heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2006MakingaMesswithMethod.pdf.

[4] Helen Sullivan uses this expression in her forthcoming article ‘‘Truth’ junkies: using evaluation in UK public policy’, see Policy & Politics.

[5] ESRC Seminar Series Policy as Practice, Award no. RES-451-26-0613. Award holders: Steven Griggs (De Monfort University), Richard Freeman (Edinburgh University), Michael Farrelly (Open University), Tim Freeman (University of Birmingham) and Mark Bramah (Association for Public Service Excellence).

[6] Flyvbjerg. B.  (2001) Making social science matter. Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Laws, D. and Hajer, M. (2006) ‘Policy as Practice’ in M. Moran, M. Rein and R.E. Goodin (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Reality Bites…

Whilst some people will be hanging out the bunting on Friday to celebrate the Royal Wedding, others will be in a less celebratory mood.  For a large number of people examining their April pay-slips, their benefit statements, rent demands, food and fuel bills – reality bites.

Weekly shopping bills are increased and the cost of fuel is high, despite the 1p off fuel duty from the Chancellor in the Budget.  There are a number of factors converging to make life, particularly for those on low incomes, a lot tougher. 

The Localism Bill makes clear the Government’s intention to break down centrally driven regulation and diktats from the centre on how public money should be spent; but there still appears to be confusion on which central budgets need governance and direction; and this has an impact on vulnerable groups.  For example £200 million has been announced to fund pothole repairs since February 2011, which George Jones suggests is “an act of centralised decision-making at odds with the rhetoric of localism”.  On the other hand, the lifting of the ring-fence and mainstreaming of the Supporting People budget, along with the reduction in the 2011/12 financial settlement for councils means that budgets for support services are drastically cut in some areas leaving people without the help they have hitherto depended upon.  Some of these service cuts have manifested in the closure of hostels, or the reduction of bed spaces for vulnerable people in need of a roof and support.  One example of this is the probation service in one area handing out tents and sleeping bags to ex-offenders because of lack of bed spaces and hostel support. 

The cumulative effects of the economic crisis, budget cuts and Laissez-Faire approach to some issues of governance and support are not just hitting those at the very margins of society.  There will also be an effect on individuals and communities who have, at the moment, a place to live.  It is in one of the most fundamental aspects of a low-income household’s outgoings that will be hit the hardest – the ability to pay the rent. The Government’s housing benefit reforms came into effect on 1st April and they manifest in a number of ways (see further CIH briefing paper).  One of the key impacts is the capping of maximum weekly local housing allowance.  This means that in areas of high demand and high rents, some areas of London for example, housing benefit will not cover the rent by some margin.  People on low incomes will be prohibited from living in the communities that they have called home.  This will impact negatively not just on the individuals, but will also create less diverse communities.  The inaffordability  of current homes in certain areas of the country, will be coupled with the effects of the Localism Bill on reducing regional targets for new house building, and in spite of schemes such as the New Homes Bonus, there are concerns that not enough houses will be built.  The National Housing Federation   and the Town and Country Planning Association/ Joseph Rowntree Foundation   have both voiced concerns over the rate of new housing building being affected by the revocation of regional strategies.

With more people unable to afford homes in areas of high rent, fewer new homes being built, reduction in support services leaving people literally roofless – the reality of government cuts is biting.

Written by Jo Richardson

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If you’re happy and you know it….

The movement Action for Happiness launched earlier this week with members buying cups of coffee for strangers and giving out ‘free hugs’.  With 4,500 initial members across 60 countries it has big aims to become a mass global movement. 

Anthony Seldon (one of the three founding members of the movement) writing in an article for the Telegraph[1] recognises the challenges to happiness and provides examples of depression in young people, closing post offices and the impact of the wider economic pressures.  However, he suggests that there is scientific evidence that ‘happiness’ can be taught and it increases productivity.  Action for Happiness teaches 10 steps and Seldon summarises these ideas in his newspaper article.  In addition to keeping physically fit, we are encouraged to ‘do good to feel good’, to ‘go out on a date with one’s partner at least once a week’, and to ‘take time to bond deeply with one’s children’. 

10 steps to happiness

  1. Do things for others
  2. Connect with people
  3. Take care of your body
  4. Notice the world around
  5. Keep learning new things
  6. Have goals to look forward to
  7. Find ways to bounce back
  8. Take a positive approach
  9. Be comfortable with who you are
  10. Be part of something bigger

 Basic human needs and wellbeing

To position oneself in opposition to the general notion of happiness would be miserly, however there are some difficulties in accepting the notion of ‘self-help’ in the happiness stakes without some of the fundamentals being in place.  Maslow, in his (1943) Theory of Human Motivation, referred to a hierarchy of needs where the most basic needs such as food, water, shelter, safety and security had to be in place before social, ego and self actualization needs could be met.  Seldon says that happiness is not about materialism, but there must surely be some basis on which happiness is built.  Glimpses of happiness are perhaps possible without access to water and a safe place to live, but these glimmers dwell in spontaneous fleeting moments and cannot have permanence as a state of mind for those who are without stability and security.  How does someone who is homeless, or jobless, follow the 10 steps to happiness?

In line with the idea that happiness goes beyond materialism, Wilkinson and Pickett (2009)[2] looked at wellbeing in rich countries in their research, and they found that it does not grow exponentially in line with economic growth and individual income.  They suggest that economic growth has largely done its work in rich countries, instead they find that lack of wellbeing – whether social, health or some other measure – is dependent more on inequality than overall levels of poverty.  This also echoes Sen’s (1999)[3] notion that it is the freedom of opportunity to achieve wellbeing, rather than well being itself which is a more appropriate measure in the study of inequality.

Sandel (2009)[4] has called for a new public debate about the moral limits of markets and a more robust public discourse engaging with moral issues.  In making a case for a ‘politics of the common good’, Sandel suggests that this would help rebuild institutions and the structure of civic and public life.  He suggests that altruism is not a scarce resource, but that this and moral guidance are characteristics that, like muscles in the body, can grow stronger with exercise.   

The tyranny of positive thought

In her book Smile or Die, Ehrenreich (2010)[5] discusses this notion of individual responsibility to be positive.  In her particular study, the encouragement to be positive is in order to secure a successful outcome in the context of illness, specifically cancer.  She suggests that there is a ‘tyranny’ of positive thought which means that an individual can secure health, wealth and happiness if only they themselves are positive.  Ehrenreich goes as far as to suggest, in a different context, that unfettered positivity could have in part led to financial institutions and governments ignoring the warnings of individuals that the financial system could not be sustained, because their views were not ‘positive’.  Ignoring the negative could possibly have ultimately led to the banking crisis.  Equally, she suggests that if individuals are held responsible for their own destiny (if you’re positive then redundancy is an ‘opportunity’ rather than a threat) then it negates the need for the state or private employers to support those who find themselves out of a job due to the current economic climate.

Support happiness

There is of course value in happiness, wellbeing, altruism and other notions discussed, not just by Action for Happiness, but thinkers such as Sen and Sandel.  Optimism must surely beat pessimism and happiness has to be better than unhappiness – very few people would want to position themselves in opposition to these aims.  However, the warnings of Ehrenreich and others should be heeded – the instructions to ‘take happiness seriously’ and to follow the 10 steps to happiness should not rest solely on each of us as individuals with the assumption that we have ultimate control over our own destiny.  The wider context and the impact of inequality must be considered.  In the current economic climate, there are real barriers to happiness – cuts to local public services are seeing communal neighbourhood spaces closing.  If you live in an area where the local swimming pool has closed, it makes it that much more difficult to follow step 3 (Take care of your body) and if the library has shut nearby then step 5 (Keep learning new things) may also be a challenge.  If we are to follow the 10 steps to happiness then there is still a need for government to lead and support communities to enable the very institutions and facilities that might help increase welfare and happiness.  We need to support happiness, not leave it up to individuals and blame them for their own unhappiness when they have been failed by the market and the state.

Written by Jo Richardson  


[1] 12th April, Action for Happiness: why tackling the nation’s depression is long overdue, www.telegraph.co.uk (particular page offline at the time of blog publication).

[2] Wilkinson, R and Pickett, k (2009) The Spirit Level, why more equal societies almost always do better, London: Allen Lane

[3] Sen, A (1999) Commodities and Capabilities, New Delhi: Oxford University Press

[4] Sandel, M (2009) Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizenship, Lecture 4, BBC Radio 4, 30th June 2009

[5] Ehrenreich, B (2010) Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, London: Granta Books

 

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Community Organising: Personalising and Polarizing

Lord Maurice Glasman  came to De Montfort University on 31st March to talk about a wide range of issues encompassing Big Society, faith, research and community organising.  Glasman is known for his critique of the relentless march of the free market in his book, Unnecessary Suffering,  a point of view which has been echoed in the analysis of the recession in our book From Recession to Renewal   

I was particularly inspired by Lord Glasman’s lessons, in the talk at DMU, on community organising and the links with my own ideas on the co-production of research with minority groups.  The grass-roots approaches to solving the problematic shortage of accommodation (particularly for Gypsies and Travellers) through community land trusts is an area of current research, specifically examining one new pilot project in the South West.

Lord Glasman has already neatly outlined the important lessons in community organising in his own blog  examining the secrets of Obama’s success.  Some of these lessons were key in the Citizens UK  fight with banks and other organisations to get a living wage for employees.  In his talk to DMU, Glasman referred to the rules of ‘personalise’ and ‘polarize’ taught by Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals (1971).  There is a need to ‘Always work inside the experience of your people’ (personalise) and to ‘Wherever possible go outside the experience of your opponents’ (polarize).  A short film on Citizens UK  explains how in the early 1990’s one man (Mr Abdul Durrant) put the Chair of HSBC (Sir John Bond) outside of his own experience when he explained that although they worked in the same office (one as a cleaner on less than a living wage, the other as head of the bank in line for millions of pounds in potential bonus) they lived in different worlds.  The result of this personalising and polarizing technique was a living wage for all employees in this bank, and then later in other banks and organisations.  Having had success in the university sector too Citizens UK  has its sights set on the big supermarkets now.

Working with community groups, particularly the Gypsy and Traveller communities who are often marginalised in society and who do not have enough places to live, or sufficient access to healthcare and education, I am particularly interested in engaged research co-produced with the community.  This is so that problems are truly understood, and community members are empowered as part of the research process – rather than having research ‘done’ to them.  Lord Glasman’s speech on the importance of independent community action gave renewed meaning to this approach and provided fresh confidence that ‘academic’ researchers do have a mandate for getting involved in communities rather than attempting to maintain a distance.  Practitioner academics (or as Kevin Orr  might say ‘pracademics’) have a role to play in the co-production of ideas with the communities they aim to help. 

Glasman’s speech also reminded me of why I got into ‘housing’ in the first place.  As a senior year student in the United States 20 years ago I volunteered for a brief period with an organisation called New York City Relief  to help the homeless in New York[1].   This was a faith based charity providing food, clothes, some medical treatment, plus housing and employment advice to the very neediest people in New York society; it was community organisation in action and the project is still growing in capacity and reach.  My involvement with New York City Relief prompted me to think about issues of social exclusion, community, housing need, poverty and discrimination – it is refreshing after a time in academia to remember this sense of purpose and to inject this into my ‘pracademic’ work.

Written by Jo Richardson


[1]This was before the time of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his punitive policies on homelessness in New York.

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Leicester anti-cuts protest: video footage

In October 2010, the Chancellor George Osborne announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review an £80bn spending reduction project to be implemented over the next five years. Local authorities in England are facing grant reductions of 28% on average (Source: The Guardian 8th Feb 2011).On that same day, the City Council voted a £28m cut and 500 redundancies in the hope to reach a £100m saving by 2015. Two thirds of Leicester City Council’s budget is made of government grants 

On 24th February 2011, the action group Leicestershire Against the Cuts, the trade union Unison, the council support service Star (Supporting Tenants and Residents), as well as various associations and individuals rallied at the Town Hall Square in order to voice their concerns about the budget cuts that were about to be voted by Leicester City Council..

Amongst the 200 people that gathered in front of the Town Hall, we interviewed individuals with different profiles, different views and different concerns (Source: BBC). Some of the demonstrators entered the council chamber.

When questioned, some of the interviewees came up with the same alternative to the cuts: a “Robin Hood Tax”. This tax is supported by public sector workers’ trade unions and the Labour Party and involves taxing banks’ bonuses. The Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls estimates such a tax could amount to £3.5bn per year, on top of the £1.7bn to £2.5bn bank levy already announced by the coalition Government in February 2011.

video here

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More bang for your green buck: green income generation for local government

The outlook for the public sector at the end of 2010 was not good: the UK has slid into a serious recession, which combined with the banking crisis, has led to a budgetary crisis in the public finances not seen for many years. This has caused morale in local government to dip: people worry about their jobs, the services they provide and the potential to continue to deal with an ever-increasing workload. There is very much a need for some light at the end of the tunnel.

Climate change is a pressing new agenda. It has existed for some time but has come to the fore because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions targets (both nationally and internationally) and the creation of new financial incentives by the Government. Local authorities need to be part of this agenda but few chief officers in local authorities seem to have switched on to its significance.  One of the reasons why it is so important is that it offers huge local opportunities, as well as new burdens. To be well organized, each local authority should develop a holistic climate change strategy, setting targets and goals, building a route map towards them, and coming up with projects that form the steps on that path. A corporate approach is vital.

Solar photovoltaic panels to generate electricity are now one of the leading areas of renewable technology and this solution has been proved commercially successful around the world. Solar PV works in the UK, despite its cooler climate than Europe. The government has introduced new financial incentives for qualifying PV schemes, whether public or private sector. Local authorities have everything that they need to make the most of this agenda: buildings to convert, workforces to undertake the work and the capacity to borrow money to fund such works. This is a chance to create a new opportunity and make changes that benefit your areas and are self -funding. It is literally a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.

In any major renewable energy project, the two major risks are obtaining planning permission and achieving a connection to the National Grid. Fortunately, a grid connection is not a problem with buildings; although planning permission is likely to be required.

Smaller PV schemes are also subject to the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), which is an internationally recognized quality assurance scheme that demonstrates to customers that companies engaged in PV installation work are committed to meeting rigorous and tested standards. Obviously for a local authority direct services team to undertake this work, it needs to become an MCS certificated installer and to use products also certificated under the MCS.

None of these hurdles should present a problem to a local authority team already undertaking substantial building maintenance work. It was mentioned above that there are significant benefits to any local authority that engages in renewable energy generation. These include:

  • Community leadership;
  • Energy security;
  • Carbon benefits;
  • Effectiveness and efficiency;
  • Economic benefits;
  • Income generation;

The best way of doing it is the ‘DIY option’ where the authority literally does it itself. This means it recruits and trains the people who will do the work, both preparatory and delivery; obtains the supplies and equipment itself, using its existing sustainable procurement processes; and gives active consideration to how the local economy can benefit at every stage.

But even so, the authority still wants to get the maximum value out of its project. To achieve this, it needs to create a revolving fund, where the original capital investment is recycled time after time to achieve maximum effect. Here is how such a project might be structured:

  • The Council starts the revolving fund by depositing an amount of capital into the new buildings PV account. It is up to the authority how much this is;
  • The Council would recruit a manual workforce and get it trained to the MCS Accreditation standards;
  • The Council needs to develop a schedule of its buildings and work plan;
  • Arrangements need to be put in place to procure the solar panel kits and other equipment necessary for the work to go ahead;
  • The work plan needs to determine the priority of buildings, although this is up to the authority;
  • As installations are completed and linked to the grid, the feed in tariff income would start to accrue to the Council’s PV account. The occupants of the buildings (whether the Council’s officers or members, schools or tenants) would get the electricity created by the PV panels free;
  • As some stage, the income coming into the revolving fund will be sufficient to continue to fund the operation of the team moving forwards; in other words, the operation becomes self sustainable;
  • Calculations need to be undertaken as to the value of the initial capital investment, as opposed to the size and speed at which the teams would exist and operate;
  • Once the operation becomes self sustainable, it can simply carry on until all the Council’s buildings have been fitted with solar PV installations and thereafter offer services to other public bodies and to the public at large. In this way work for a number of additional years may be obtained for the highly trained, skilled and experienced workforce that has been created;

It is mentioned above that this is a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. I have been involved in direct services for 25 years and, most of that time, those services have been under threat. It is a very long time indeed, since an opportunity to create some new ‘family silver’ has come along. An opportunity to enjoy growth as opposed to cuts; to create new skills, as opposed to a skills drain; to have a wider and wholly positive impact on other areas of the Council’s operation, rather than being just a recharged central cost. This proposal offers all of those things.

Stephen Cirell is a Consultant with the Association for Public Service Excellence

Contact: stephencirell@me.com

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Community action works! Levenshulme Baths saved!

As part of the current Coalition government’s deficit reduction strategy, October’s Comprehensive Spending Review handed local government the toughest financial settlements across the public sector. This budget cut was passed down to local authorities with Manchester City Council receiving one of the harshest and unfair financial settlements – compounded by the loss of substantial additional funding which reflected the level of deprivation in the city – resulting in a front-loaded budget cut of 25%.

Manchester City Council recently announced a plan to make these savings – £109 million in the next financial year and £170 million in the following year-  proposing: the cutting of 2000 jobs, 17% of the current workforce; a cut in children’s services of 26%; 21% in adult services; along with the closure of public toilets, libraries, leisure centres and swimming pools. The council has been attacked by central government, for making party politics by targeting front line services. The council has responded by saying that this level of cuts simply cannot be absorbed through efficiency savings.

One of the swimming pools under threat of closure is in Levenshulme, a diverse and deprived area of south Manchester. Levenshulme is also the place where I live. I have used the baths two or three times a week since I moved to the area nearly three years ago. The baths are always busy and act as a social hub for the area, being well used by a wide cross-section of the community including local primary schools.

On 9 February, following the announcement of the proposed closure, over 150 people gathered outside the baths in a spontaneous protest which received national media coverage. A community email list, Facebook group and online petition were quickly organised. On the Friday of that week, a meeting – attended by over 200 people – was held at the local community centre, Levenshulme Inspire to plan action to save the baths. This action meeting was followed by a protest the following day where over 500 people marched along the high street to the baths. Regular action meetings have been held weekly, other protest and fundraising events have included a ‘swim in’, a banner making workshop, a beacon event which made the link  between the closure of the baths and the Olympic legacy pledge.  A local youth group is now making a documentary about the campaign.

The campaign has been by the community and for the community and particular mention should be made about the activities of the children from local primary schools which regularly use the baths. Pupils made banners, signs – many saying ‘I learnt to swim at Levenshulme Baths’! – but most impressively, several spoke at meetings and presented about the importance of the baths to them and why they should be saved.  

This campaign is undeniably political. But there has been a strong consensus amongst campaigners that it should not be party political. Indeed all three of the main parties have received criticism about the proposed closure. Councillors and local MPs have had an opportunity here to really be champions of the communities they espouse to represent and it is one that shouldn’t be squandered by political point scoring which only angers the community further. Councillors have however listened to this strong campaign from the community and made a u-turn and have now asked officers to find funds for a modern, most cost-effective facility for Levenshulme and to keep the existing baths open until this replacement is available.

The decision to save Levenshulme Baths has been met with a degree of surprise and a great deal of relief and happiness in the community. Moreover, it has given confidence that community action can work even in the seemingly most difficult of economic situations. Being involved in this protest has been inspiring not only for its impact, but for the energy, organisation and enthusiasm of the campaign. The lessons I will take from this campaign are: believe you can succeed, act quickly, get organised, be inclusive and try and make it fun.

The wider campaign against the cuts in Manchester continues with the real concern that whilst Levenshulme Baths may be saved, it is likely that another public service in Manchester will be hit. For all its espoused enthusiasm for community organising and action in the so-called ”Big Society’, the Coalition government is likely to find that much of this action is likely to be resistance to its policies as cuts begin to impact on the lives of ordinary people.

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What does Big Society mean?

Does Big Society = a + ß1occ + ß2qual + ß3eth + ß3age + ε?

 This is not April 1st arrived early! Consulting Inplace has published a report on which local authority areas are best prepared for the big society.   It has also had extensive media coverage.

 As with much quantitative statistical research, the relevance of the findings depends on the adequacy and availability of information i.e. rubbish data leads to poor research findings. In this case, the emphasis is on formal volunteering and participating in decision making.  It makes claims that these are prerequisites for swift progress on Big Society and further argues that factors such as occupations, qualifications, ethnicity and age are critical.  These latter points are hardly earth-shattering!  Localities with people having high-level qualifications and managerial occupations do indeed get more involved formally in activities compared to other areas.

 More fundamentally, a key issue is whether formal volunteering and involvement in local decision-making is an adequate measure of Big Society. What about informal activities such as helping neighbours, supporting local facilities and investing time in grass-roots organisations?  There needs to be a new unit of measurement in any analysis of the potential for Big Society, rather than a ‘time served’ approach to how volunteer-minded a city is.  Some of the ‘invisible’ volunteering that has been happening without a government sanctioned framework needs to be recognised – a grey volunteering economy that is difficult to measure now needs taking into account when examining and evaluating Big Society.

 One example  of measuring and recognising activities that may, hitherto, have gone unnoticed is the Active Learning for Residents programme at the Chartered Institute of Housing.  Employees of housing organisations have undertaken training to become official ‘recognisers’ so that they can mentor tenants through a series of learning activities to gain a level 2 qualification.  This may help tenants who have contributed to their communities and who do not have the formal qualifications to get access to the workplace, to have their achievements recognised.  But, does it change the nature of community action and volunteering?  Are we in danger of changing the very thing we study, by imposing top-down frameworks of measuring and ‘recognising’?

 However, before we all denigrate quantitative research, we ought to take a step back from the current confused debate and discussions on Big Society.  There is little substance in many of the contributions. We, therefore, badly need robust research on Big Society, community engagement and capacity building.  Ten years ago, Robert Putnam’s research on social capital was in vogue. His work was also criticised for its emphasis on formal groups and societies; but it generated considerable interest at the time too.

 We, therefore, ought to revisit the work on bridging and bonding capital and link it with current studies to take forward the Big Society debate as part of a robust research framework.  Rather than undertaking research from an detached point of view, future work to analyse Big Society should perhaps take the form of ‘co-produced’ research in partnership with the very communities it seeks to observe, in order to properly understand the connections and contributions that people are making in their society but which are not formally measured.  Such findings could have impact locally and might produce evidence to question ‘Big Society = a + b1occ + b2qual + b3eth + b3age + e’ and instead attempt to properly understand hitherto unrecognised contributions to community, from the community, and according to communities’ own frames of reference rather than externally imposed methods of measurement and recognition.

 Written by Tim Brown   &  Jo Richardson

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