Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How Third Sector Professionals killed Big Society...and the idea of voluntary initiative

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A few years ago I attended an event organised by Julian Dobson and others that was, or rather purported to be, connected in some way with the government's Big Society idea. And, as a fan of the idea, I toddled along in what turned out to be a vain expectation of enthusiasm for thinking about civil society and the way in which voluntary social action plays a part in transforming society for the better.

What I experienced (and this was repeated again and again in my peregrinations round the voluntary sector) was quite different. Instead of people engaged in voluntary social action what we have in this visible part of the 'voluntary' sector are two sorts of people - political activists (almost exclusively from the left of politics) and what we might call 'sector professionals'. I was struck, as I am always struck at these sorts of occasion, by the almost complete absence of any genuine volunteers - people who have got up off their backside and done something for their community.

Today, various of the 'usual culprits' in "The Sector" have rounded on the Big Lottery and Cabinet Office over the manner in which they have funded a couple of organisations closely linked to the Big Society agenda. It is, we are told by these people who made it their mission to distance "The Sector" from Big Society, a terrible scandal requiring investigations and probably executions.

Yet these people - so self-righteous in their condemnation - are the very same people that spent the first year of this government undermining the idea of Big Society. They came up with different versions of it - one's untainted by the dread association. With the result that the winners in the game were new organisations - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for sure but inexperienced and with ideas that needed work. But where were the experts? All those people from NCVO and ACEVO, all the parasitical consultants upon the multi-billion pound state funding of the 'voluntary' sector?

These self-appointed sector leaders set out to make sure Big Society failed. And they did so for one reason alone - it was an initiative from a Conservative prime minister. To these "sector professionals" (a surprising number having close links with the Labour Party) no Tory could possibly understand "The Sector" and therefore the initiative was either a smokescreen to cover up the evil neoliberal agenda of the Coalition or else a trojan horse aimed at smuggling in cackling Tory businessmen to take over voluntary action.

What these "sector professionals" and their new found activist friends fail to appreciate is that they are the problem rather than Big Society, the Coalition government or evil Tory neoliberals. It is the transforming of voluntary organisations of all sorts - whether working with a particular group people, in a particular place or on a particular issue - from organisations doing voluntary work into sub-contractors to the state that represents the single greatest wound to our civil society.

What these "sector professionals" presided over, and it accelerated under the Blair/Brown Labour government, was the de facto nationalisation of voluntary action. We got to a situation where nothing was deemed possible without government funding and without the employing of these "sector professionals". And just as importantly those professionals were recruited on the basis of their ability to attract funds fron the Labour government, from QUANGOs led by Labour supporters and regional agencies padded with Labour councillors.

So organisations - just like their funders - got stuffed full with Labour supporters. And, when the change of government arrived and with it the Big Society idea, these people were faced with two options - suck up to the evil Tory neoliberals or do what the Labour Party wanted and undermine the policy. Sadly, for the idea of volunteering and of the voluntary society, the sector's leadership chose to dismiss Big Society and campaign instead for the continuation and extension of a role for "The Sector" as sub-contractors to state agencies.

The latest round of attacks on Big Society confirms to me everything that is wrong with those "sector professionals". I see a group of well-paid, middle-class folk protecting their interests and crafting a language of entitlement to do so. Links into government at professional or operational level - along with ministerial fear of upsetting "The Sector" - has maintained the current system of funding more or less intact. New places to broker influence arose - Clinical Commissioning Groups being a fine example - and the idea of people doing something simply because they care becomes ever more distant.

Thankfully there's a whole load of voluntary action still going on and plenty of people loving the place they live and the people who live there. But these people have absolutely no connection to or links with the entitled grant-farmers that dominate the national discourse about the voluntary sector.

It saddens me that an idea such as the Big Society was killed off by a self-interested group more concerned with protecting state-funding and state contracts than with the idea of promoting and encouraging voluntary action. The idea of the state stepping out of the way and letting people do it themselves has been sacrificed so a bunch of well-connected lefties can carry on lecturing us while living off government grants.

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Monday, 21 July 2014

On how planning nearly killed Birmingham and why garden cities aren't the answer

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And before Brummies leap in and accuse me of doing down their city, the same goes for Bradford, for Leeds and for just about every other big city. Here's the quote from The Economist blog:

In the post-war era, there was a strong sense among British politicians that cities were slightly unpleasant things like mushrooms that ought not be allowed to grow too fast. Inspired by utopian city planners such as Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier, they decided that urban metropolises had to be cut back. Without much consultation, enormous numbers of people were "decanted" from inner-city slums to grey suburban council estates, where loneliness and crime thrived. Meanwhile, the city centres themselves were strangled with great elevated roads intended to get people in and out of the "commercial" zones. Birmingham probably suffered the worst of anywhere. Even Joseph Chamberlain's grand Council House was surrounded by roads.

Right now planners across the country are 'learning the lessons' of the past and drawing up new - and newly grand - schemes for cities and towns. Yet the echo of the think described above remains - cities are nasty, unclear, dangerous places and people want to live in ordered, structured and safe communities. We even have a "new" garden city movement:

Garden cities are back on the political and social agenda. Barely a day goes past without Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband talking about them. Lord Wolfson has got in on the act by launching a competition to build a new garden city in England. The prize of £250,000 is enough to properly kickstart a new social garden city movement.

And this 'movement' has a rhetoric filled with today's trendy rhetoric of 'cooperatives', 'community ownership' and 'social enterprise' - all guaranteed to get us shaking with excitement at this ordered world outside the city, a Utopian wonderland of community leadership, social capital and parks.

Forgive me if I don't share your excitement at building boring places filled with dullness, where every activity is purposeful, where committees of local worthies decide what you have in your front garden, the colour of your front door and whether you can put a six foot pink gnome by your gate. If you want these garden cities go build them but don't pretend they replace the excitement of the city or the mixed community of the market town or the tranquillity of the village. I'm with Jane Jacobs on Ebenzer Howard and garden cities:

“His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns,really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge."
And we've seen what planners did to Birmingham. Useful though those planner might be, we can't put them in charge.
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Bikes for the unemployed! Bradford embraces Norman's dad!

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The latest more-or-less pointless gimmick:

People coming off the dole in Bradford will be given free bikes to help them get to their new jobs. 

However, it would seem that this isn't a celebration of Tebbit's father bicycling to find work in the 1930s but rather is part of the latest attempt to bully us out of cars and onto other forms of transport.  Shame really!

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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Quote of the day - Owen Paterson on the green lobby...

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OK so the term 'green blob' does rather summon up images of Quatermass but Paterson is absolutely spot on in his condemnation of the so-called 'green' lobby:

I soon realised that the greens and their industrial and bureaucratic allies are used to getting things their own way. I received more death threats in a few months at Defra than I ever did as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. My home address was circulated worldwide with an incitement to trash it; I was burnt in effigy by Greenpeace as I was recovering from an operation to save my eyesight. But I did not set out to be popular with lobbyists and I never forgot that they were not the people I was elected to serve.

Indeed, I am proud that my departure was greeted with such gloating by spokespeople for the Green Party and Friends of the Earth.

It was not my job to do the bidding of two organisations that are little more than anti-capitalist agitprop groups most of whose leaders could not tell a snakeshead fritillary from a silver-washed fritillary. I saw my task as improving both the environment and the rural economy; many in the green movement believed in neither. 

These things cannot be said too often. The 'green' movement is driven less by the interests of our local environments that by self-interest, the search for power and influence, and above all by an unwavering belief that improving the conditions for ordinary men and women comes at a cost to the environment.  It doesn't. Just as no-one is poor become another is rich, the environment is not doomed by the desire of people like me to see poor people everywhere enjoying the fruits of capitalism's bounty.

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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Socialism turns people into cheats...

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Or so Alex Tabarrok reports:
 

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of plausible deniability.


Of course here we are not at all surprised. We know that non-market systems protect privilege and promote favour-mongering even in law-abiding and mostly non-socialist Britain.

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From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We
exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts
individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans
who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to
capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of
plausible deniability. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/07/moral-effects-of-socialism.html#sthash.4w1nOOS1.dpuf

Friday, 18 July 2014

Micro-housing: a little bit of living space innovation...

If you're looking for imaginative responses to housing problems how about:

The students, together with professors and alumns, have designed and built three 135-square-foot ‘SCADpads’ — fully equipped micro-dwellings that fit the size of a standard parking space. The pop-up parking garage village also contains communal open areas, such as a Groovebox community garden, a living room, and work spaces.

You can see more here. Micro-housing is a thing - you can read a load at this blog including:

Micro-housing is one of the fastest-growing housing trends in Seattle for its affordability and sustainable lifestyle. But the problems have to do with neighborhood fabric and taxes. Put up a micro-housing complex and people who have lived in the neighborhoods for years suddenly have 40-100 new strangers on the block, depending on how many units are in the building. Many find this threatening to the fabric of their communities. 

Interesting stuff.

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On the causes of employment...

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Chris Dillow, everyone's favourite cuddly Marxist, takes Tim Montgomerie to task over unemployment - or rather employment:

My chart shows that since the Tories took office, the number of unfilled vacancies has risen. What's happened is a move along the Beveridge curve, rather than an inward shift in it. This corroborates micro-level evidence that the Help to Work scheme had only small effects in getting people into employment.

The big story since 2010 is not that the unemployed have been filling vacancies faster but rather that there's been an increase in the demand for labour.

And this observation raises some interesting questions, not just about unemployment but about economic policy in general. The link in the quote above is to a commentary from NIESR about the effectiveness of the 'Work Programme', the current government's programme aimed at supporting the transition into work for the unemployed. We should note here that the 'Work Programme' was developed in response to the perceived failings of previous schemes both in terms of effectiveness and also value-for-money.

The implication of Chris's observation is that there is a disconnection between the micro- and macro-level policies. We know this is the case because the money paid to Work Programme providers is on the basis of results rather than activity commissioned in anticipation of targets being met (and we should note this is the central criticism of NIESR's research - it's findings were very early in the programme).

So money is paid to Work Programme contractors on the basis of actual people going into actual jobs - about 250,000 of them (although the permanence of these jobs is a matter of debate). Yet we are told that, in net terms, these programmes aren't effective and that it is factors in the whole economy - the relative price of labour, overall economic growth and so forth - that determine whether or not people leave unemployment for employment.

In fundamental terms what is being said here is that those expensive programmes aimed at supporting people into work are merely an indulgence - the economic policy equivalent of putting go-faster stripes on your Lada.  Except that on the proverbial front-line it simply doesn't feel that way. Even with the incentive of less cash benefits for many long-term unemployed it's pretty difficult to find and, just as importantly, keep work. To try and help everyone understand, I'm going to tell a couple of stories.

The first one is about the young man on a college-based construction training programme. This lad is on work experience at a site and, one morning, the site manager rings up the project worker and says that he keeps turning up late. The project worker thinks this odd - he's always come to college and was pretty reliable. So she goes to see him, as she put it, "to give him the hard word". It turns out that the problem is that the lad's father - also unemployed - doesn't want him to work because he thought it might affect his housing benefit. So the young man left his tools and overalls at a friend's house and, each morning, climbed out his bedroom window and over the back fence so his Dad didn't know he was working.

The second story was told by a programme manager on Manchester's Wythenshawe estate. This manager was curious as to why Wythenshawe had such a high level of male unemployment despite that fact that right next door is the North West's biggest generator of employment - Manchester Airport. So he went to see employers on and near the airport to ask why. And he discovered that the problem was pretty simple - most airport employers had strict security checks and something like two-thirds of the men on the estate had some form of criminal record. They would fall at the first hurdle.

I could relate more stories about the barriers put in the way of the long-term unemployed. I could talk about English Bob who was told to stop going out to get jobs for his fifteen-year-old bottom set pupils and to put them through an English exam he knew they would fail. Or the efforts of much maligned businesses like Poundland to employ people with learning difficulties. Everywhere you go you'll find people - in businesses, in charities, at schools and in public agencies - trying to find ways to get people into sustainable jobs.

And it's hard. Not just because there are few jobs - certainly jobs that suit - but because many of the long-term unemployed are stuck, or addicted or ill. Some really don't want to work at all. Yet when you see a lad off Seacroft who yesterday was cock-of-the-walk on the estate standing nervously twisting his baseball cap as he waits for an interview to go on a joinery course - then you know that the problem isn't 'don't care, won't care, don't want a job'. That lad has been given such a narrow horizon - dingy council flats, petty squabbles where violence is half-a-bottle of vodka away and a world outside that sees only anti-social behaviour, illiteracy and a bad attitude.

So if the Work Programme has got only 70,000 people off that heap and into real work - perhaps for the first time ever - I see that as something to celebrate not something to condemn as failure. I think of the barriers those unemployed people have crossed, I can hear the 'give him a go' conversations with employers and I can picture the frustration of good people as they try again and again to get some hopelessly unreliable person into a job.

Chris Dillow might be right when he says it's falling wages that lie behind the growth in UK employment. But he should also see the human stories too and remember that the micro- stuff matters. These programmes may not make a lot of difference at the aggregate level but down on the ground they provide, every day, a way out for people who might not have made it out on their own.

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