Are we really witnessing a great ‘devolution deception’?

Ben-HarrisonjpgAs part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science, a debate took place in Bristol on 9/11/15 on the impacts of directly elected mayors on cities, including contributions from Baroness Barbara Janke, former Leader of Bristol City Council and Member of the House of Lords, Thom Oliver, Political Scientist, UWE, David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol, and Ben Harrison, Centre for Cities.  A lively debate included reference to George Osborne’s plans for cities and city regions, and particularly whether we are witnessing a ‘devolution deception’.

Here, Ben Harrison argues the case against such an interpretation. 

To dismiss the Government’s devolution agenda simply as a “deception” is to opt out of a debate at the very time that real change is finally possible.

I was recently in Bristol earlier this week speaking about the merits of directly elected mayors, when I heard a familiar refrain during the audience Q and A. Far from being a significant redistribution of power from the central state to local areas, the Government’s entire devolution agenda, the attendee said, was nothing more than a “devolution deception”.

This is far from the only time I’ve heard this kind of critique put forward, not least from the national Labour party and its new leader, and earlier this week from the leader of the Liberal Democrats. But does it really stack up – is the Government really deceiving people when it comes to its intentions on devolution?

Let’s examine the biggest concerns that tend to underpin claims that devolution is but a fig leaf for other, hidden policy agendas.

  1. The Cities Bill does not specifically commit the Government to provide any additional powers to local government

A key part of the parliamentary opposition to the Government’s agenda has been that despite the rhetoric, the Devolution Bill does not identify a list of specific policies that will be devolved to a specific set of places, and therefore it won’t allow for the devolution of anything at all.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The Bill is a deliberately generic and enabling piece of legislation that essentially allows for the devolution of almost anything – housing, health, welfare, policing and more – to a local level, and allows for different settlements to be reached in different places depending on local appetite and capacity. The only limit on devolution under the model will be the willingness and ability of local and national politicians to reach agreement on what will be included. And of course the experience in London, where the powers of the GLA has grown significantly since the turn of the century, suggests this picture can and will change over time.

  1. The Government is driving this process from the top down

Yet despite the potential expansiveness of what is on offer, many still struggle to equate the current policy process with devolution because they see the Government setting the agenda and criteria for what will or won’t be devolved within the framework set by the Bill. If it’s a ‘top down process’, how could it possibly be devolution?

The major factor that has led to the current round of city-region deals, featuring more substantial devolution than previous attempts to decentralise, has been the active involvement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne has had to deploy his own substantial political capital to set clear criteria that must be met to achieve devolution, and most critically, in order to prise control away from Whitehall departments (including the Treasury) who instinctively look to control and constrain any moves to push power down from the centre.

That’s why it is not contradictory for the process of decentralisation to be set out and driven from the centre – in fact, in a country where central Government holds almost all the power, it is necessary if we are to see tangible progress made. In 21st Century Britain, the dominance of Whitehall departments, coupled with the lack of power held by UK cities, means that only the authority of the highest offices in the land can drive the devolution of real power to cities and city-regions across the country.

  1. The process has taken place entirely behind closed doors with no public scrutiny

A separate concern relates to the lack of transparency that has characterised the deals currently being negotiated between the Government and city-regions. Unlike in previous rounds of city and growth deals, proposals have not always been made public, and with goalposts shifting, councils have struggled to communicate to their communities and colleagues in the private sector what devolution will mean for their place.

These concerns are understandable and should be addressed as a priority in the months to come – indeed already places are engaging in more detailed consultations on new arrangements for their places. But it is also important to recognise that these deals are being negotiated by politicians at a national level with a manifesto commitment to do so, and locally elected politicians with a mandate to represent the interests of their constituents. Equally, while other approaches may have been possible, the reasons why the process has to date been undertaken in this way are also understandable.

The Government has deliberately eschewed setting out a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to devolution, and has encouraged places to come forward with their own proposals in time for them to be implemented during the coming Parliament. Agreeing these proposals requires political compromise and a willingness to take on, share, and give up different powers and responsibilities. The political reality is that these are often difficult and uncertain conversations that benefit from a degree of privacy, to allow for more honest and frank conversations to take place. It would be much harder, if not impossible, to conduct these negotiations in public.

  1. This isn’t about the devolution of power, but the devolution of budget cuts

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in terms of an accusation that the Government has a “hidden agenda” when it comes to devolution, is the issue of cuts to local government budgets. Many believe that the Chancellor is in essence giving a little with one hand, but taking dramatically more with the other, while leaving councils with the responsibility to deal with the consequences for public services.

There can be no doubt that local government has undergone significant resource reductions since 2010, and as we heard from the Chancellor this week, there will be more pain for the sector to come in this Parliament. Observers are right to suggest such moves signal a concerted effort to change the size and scope of the state, and that doing so raises profound questions regarding the future of public service provision. But to suggest this is some kind of hidden agenda is, I think, misjudged.

Firstly, the Chancellor advertises his ‘austerity credentials’ proudly – they are a key part of his own personal brand and no one can have been surprised that the forthcoming Spending Review will feature more cuts. Secondly, whether one agrees with the ambition or not (and many do not), I think the Chancellor sees devolution as a necessary and complementary factor required to deliver a smaller state. The thinking here is, yes budgets will be dramatically smaller in the future, but the ability of (and imperative on) local leaders to drive efficiencies and new models of public service provision will be enhanced. Of course this is a political and financial judgement, and the merits of it can and will be contested, but on the Chancellor’s terms at least, devolution is not a distraction from austerity, but actually goes hand in hand with it.

It is to be expected that many are suspicious of the impact devolution will have across the country, and that many remain sceptical regarding the Government’s commitment to truly give power away. We have, after all, been here many times before, and failed to see control wrestled away from the central state. Equally, given the scale of public spending cuts planned, concerns regarding the future provision of public services are also understandable.

Yet to dismiss the Government’s devolution agenda simply as a “deception” is to opt out of a debate at the very time that real change is finally possible. It’s true that the prizes on offer today may seem modest, particularly when compared to the kinds of powers wielded by cities in Europe or America. But after decades of centralisation, the real questions those with doubts about the current agenda should be asking is how can we make sure that the incremental reform that is on the table today is delivered; how do we ensure that places do have greater ability to shape the way in which the forthcoming cuts affect them; and how do we ensure that, bolstered by newly established city-region leadership across the country, the devolution deals of 2015 mark the beginning of the story, not the end.

This was first posted on the Centre for Cities blog.

Print Friendly

Why how we measure poverty matters

Tessa Coombes: @policytessa

Tessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger considers the latest debates in poverty measurement as illustrated in an event organised by the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

This blog was first posted on Tessa’s own blog

Print Friendly

Bridge Learning Campus visit to ENHS

Mark EdwardsRecently a group of Year 8 students from Bridge Learning Campus spent the day with staff in the centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Sciences. Two of the girls (Amy Manning and Jess Martin) were winner and runner-up respectively of the Bristol Bright Night (Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds) award. As part of their prize Mark Edwards (ENHS) and Chloe Anderson (Centre for Public Engagement) arranged for the girls to visit the health-focused Centre. Mark reflects here on the fun and insightful day that ENHS spent with the girls.

Five girls, accompanied by their Science teacher, Ms Williams, spent the day learning about the research we do and gave us some great insights into the barriers they face to being physically active. Almost all of our work into physical activity is assessed by accelerometers (which give a sophisticated measure of physical activity). Byron Tibbitts from ENHS offered a tour de force of the little red device we use to measure activity. In true Blue Peter fashion, the girls made a rudimentary accelerometer and then did their own mini controlled trial with the real things! The girls not only conducted the experiment with Byron, but then went on to analyse and interpret the data too.

Next up, Emma Solomon, Bex Newell and Rosina Cross (the B-Proac1v team) taught the girls all about blood pressure (a measure used in the BHF-funded study into young children’s physical activity). The girls confirmed our hypotheses that music and physical activity both affect blood pressure levels.

Finally, Kate Banfield built on the work we do in our FAB Kids outreach project to discuss sugar content in drinks. In an illuminating study, the girls were genuinely shocked to see the amount of sugar in drinks commonly consumed by people their age.diagram

After a great lunch in the Refectory we headed back to have a roundtable discussion on the barriers girls face to being physically active. The declining physical activity levels of female adolescents is a real public health concern (and the focus of the Acitve7 and PLAN-A studies), so this gave staff in ENHS a great opportunity to hear about the issues girls face. Mark Edwards and Sarah Harding led the discussion and were hugely impressed with the candid and insightful observations the girls made.

The final part of the day was always going to be the most nerve racking for the girls. But they excelled. Speaking to a room packed full of academics – scary for even a seasoned prof! – the girls gave a brief presentation on what they learnt throughout the day, with a wonderful practical example of how accelerometers work. The girls then spoke about the barriers they face to being active and presented some possible solutions for getting around them. The key messages we heard were that physical activities need to be FUN! There also needs to be the opportunity for girls-only activity, a chance to try new activities in a welcoming arena, and girls want to dress in whatever they feel comfortable. In making our research effective and getting it to truly speak to the people it is aimed at, it is vital we hear the voices of the girls.

It was a pleasure having the Bridge Learning Campus girls and Ms Williams come in – the girls did themselves, their teachers, and the school proud. We hope that they not only learnt some interesting things about physical activity but also had a good deal of fun too. None of the girls knew anybody who had been to university, and none of them had ever visited a university before. We hope to have inspired them to consider university as a viable option for them when they begin thinking about their future beyond secondary school.DSC_0290

Due to the success of the day, we hope to team up with the Centre for Public Engagement to make this an annual event.

Print Friendly

Presenting at academic conferences: embracing discomfort

Natasha Mulvihill, Andrea Matolcsi, and Catherine Briddick reflect on their experiences of academic conference presentations in the field of prostitutiongvr-slider

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable […]. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers. (M. Scott Peck)

The academic conference is an established forum for colleagues to present early findings and to road-test theories.  Ranging from mutually affirming spaces, thronged with like-minded and well-acquainted delegates to more diverse, loosely-knit events where participants strike up haphazard groups, conferences offer different opportunities for communication and intellectual challenge.  But how far should we actively seek out academic conferences that engender some discomfort to, in Peck’s terms, nudge us out of our particular research perspectives?

In April, we attended the first international conference organised by PROSPOL (Comparing European Prostitution Policies:  Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance), a funded strand of work under the European COST Action IS1209 initiative.  Held in Vienna, delegates were asked to submit papers under the conference banner ‘Troubling prostitution: Exploring intersections of sex, intimacy and labour’.  As researchers on prostitution policy for a number of years, we submitted and each had an individual paper accepted, as well as panel proposal, co-presented with a colleague at Oxford.

The delegate list boasted many of the contemporary researchers across the world writing on prostitution and prostitution policy: and was for this reason a landmark event.  For those unfamiliar with this field of work, there is common demarcation made between researchers who understand selling sex as labour which deserves a statutory footing, with attendant rights and work to reduce harm, and researchers who understand prostitution as a reflection of patriarchy, characterised often by exploitation and abuse, and who lobby for measures to reduce demand for paid sex and support for women to exit.  While this division glosses over the significant diversity of views within and across these positions, it is palpable in its effects.  Researchers adopt terms consistent with the polar perspective (“sex work”, “prostitution”) and first encounters with other researchers can involve a few moments of careful neutrality, like poker players trying to read the other’s hand.  Differences in standpoint have at times been personal and appear increasingly to be played out beyond the academic journals and in to social media.  Institutions on name badges and delegate lists can suggest allegiances: ‘Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol’, for example, positions us as likely ‘prohibitionists’.  Broadly, the PROSPOL conference was sympathetic to the sex work perspective.

We offer three observations.  First, the discussion on prostitution and sex work can echo the story of the blind men and the elephant: researchers are often talking about different aspects of the sex industry and projecting their findings across the piece.  For example, the experience of migrants working in parlours, female street workers, single mothers working independently from home, internet workers ‘on tour’, male escorts or female sex tourists are all characterised by different individual circumstances and different relations of power.  So all researchers need to be careful about how they evidence their claims.

Second, as researchers writing from a feminist perspective, we are nevertheless interested in the interconnections between experiences of women and men across the sex industry and how these relate to gender-power relations.  We are mindful that despite some diversity in those selling sex, and despite the intersectional relations of race, economic status, migration status (or lack thereof), sexuality or disability within the prostitution encounter, the purchase of sex remains an overwhelmingly masculine practice.  This deserves further analysis.

Third, we note that prostitution as a practice rooted in patriarchy has been re-envisioned through the sex work movement and imbued with new meanings of freedom, choice, rights and transgression.  Much of the current research is exploring the tensions between this understanding of prostitution and a less sympathetic legal and political context.   However, rather than a brave new world, our concern would be that that this perspective reinforces prevailing power relations.  For example, there was discussion within one panel that gender equality within sex work would mean more equal numbers of men and women paying for sex.  Yet, this is surely the old gender politics where role equity for women has required women to move in to male constructed domains (politics, the workplace, front-line combat etc.) but rarely requires role change for men, or a significant challenge to the rationale, operation or normative status of those domains.

Despite our different viewpoints, we learnt a great deal from the breadth of research presented.  We got to meet the people behind the printed word and exchanged stories of how we found ourselves researching this difficult area.  We had common experiences on methods, on ethics, and on working with other organisations such as the police and health services and indeed with the women and men selling sex.  There was universal agreement that these individuals should not be criminalised.

So while our experience at the conference was at times taxing, we came away from Vienna with new knowledge, new friendships and the recognition that a little discomfort can be a good thing.

Authors                                                                              

Dr Natasha Mulvihill is a Research Associate and teacher at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research.

Andrea Matolcsi is a third-year PhD student at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Her participation in this conference was fully supported by the University of Bristol Alumni Foundation.

Catherine Briddick is studying for a DPhil in Law at the University of Oxford where she teaches international law and the protection of refugees, migrants and displaced persons.

Print Friendly

Inaugural disability lecture at Staten Island College, New York today

A special lecture is taking place this today (05/05/2015), called ‘Curtains Up! Inclusive Research for Social Justice’. It is the inaugural lecture which has been funded by a TV personality in the USA, Geraldo Rivera, and is being given by Dr. Val Williams from Norah Fry Research Centre, School for Policy Studies, with Beth Richards from the Misfits Theatre Group, and Vicky Mason who is a PhD student at Norah Fry. Our link with Staten Island is through former colleague Barbra Teater, who is now living and working in New York, running the social work programme at the College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York.

The lecture commemorates a notorious institution called Willowbrook State School, which housed literally thousands of children and young people with learning disabilities from around 1948 until its closure in 1987. Known as the last great disgrace in US disability services, Willowbrook was the subject of a TV expose by a (then young) Rivera in 1972. With his camera crew, he broke into the wards, revealing the filthy and animal-like conditions in which children were being kept. It makes for horrific viewing.

Since then, of course, much has changed. Val, Beth and Vicky will talk today about the exciting and important things achieved by people with learning disabilities, including Beth herself. The focus is on drama but also on inclusive research, and how important it is for people with learning disabilities to have their voices heard – something that is explored in the programme MSc Disability Studies: Inclusive Theory and Research hosted at the School for Policy Studies.

We hope to forge continuing links between Staten Island and the School for Policy Studies.

 

Print Friendly

Capturing the benefits of ‘playing out’

School for Policy Studies academics work with a range of local interests. Playing out is a non-for-profit Bristol based organisation that encourages street play in the UK. Naomi Fuller, from playing out, has written this blog about how their work with the School is helping them to capture the benefits of such activity. 

I stood turning the skipping rope for ages at our last playing out session. Tall ten-year-olds and sturdy toddlers queued to have a go at jumping in as I chanted “Mickey Mouse Built a House” on request. I watched them – some skipping deftly, others stopping and starting with the rope getting tangled, some squatting down to do some chalking close by while they waited and I wondered whether it was possible to unpick what was going on. Of course they were having fun, giggling and trying to hold hands and skip together, then running out of the turning rope to add chalked horns to the rainbow-coloured cow they had drawn together in the middle of the street. But is there any way to measure this activity. And is there any need?PORTRAIT-grandma-skipping-rope.jpg

A conference hosted recently by University of Bristol gave some clear answers to these questions. The event was called “Outdoors and Active: Delivering public health outcomes by increasing children’s active travel and outdoor play”. It gathered people working in local authority public health teams, education and play services to share new research showing beyond doubt that children at playing out sessions are getting more exercise and activity than they would if they were indoors during that same period. Dr Angie Page and Professor Ashley Cooper are lead researchers for the PEACH project, a long term study examining the links between the different physical environments children spend time in and how active they are in them. They and their team have already measured children’s activity levels on their school journeys – whether in cars, on foot or by bike, during the school day and in the after-school period, examining the length of time they spend outdoors and indoors and exactly how much physical exercise they do.

To carry out these studies and gather the data they need, researchers have kitted children out with GPS tracking devices which show precisely their location at every stage of their journey. Children have also worn ‘accelerometers’ which measure the intensity of their exercise and activity. Recently Angie and her research team have turned their attention to street play – visiting playing out sessions to measure the intensity and type of physical activity children are doing. As well as equipping the children with the technical kit, her team interviewed parents and children about their activity patterns and habits.

It’s the levels of ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ (MVPA) that are a key focus. Government guidelines are clear: children between five and eighteen need to get at least an hour’s MPVA each day to ensure they are healthy. But very few are managing this and recent figures show just 14% of boys and 8% of girls are doing so. And these levels of inactivity are increasingly worrying for children’s long-term health and wellbeing. During a playing out session MVPA is the energetic play we often see; the skipping, scooting, hopscotch and playing tag as you would expect. But it’s brisk walking and similar types of activity as well and lots of imaginative games would include periods of MVPA as I’ve observed on my own street when make believe wizards and witches take to their broomsticks after huddling over a pretend cauldron for a while. The University of Bristol data shows;

  •  Children are three to five times more active outdoors than indoors
  • Time spent outdoors with friends is linked to an increase in children’s physical activity levels
  • During playing out sessions children spent 30% of their time in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and another 15% in light activity.
  • This compares to 5% of time indoors usually spent in MVPA

Holding-one-end-skipping-ropeAngie Page introduced some important questions in presenting these findings. First was the notion of ‘subsitutional replacement’. Put in lay terms the issue is whether the children at the playing out session would have got their physical activity in another place such as their garden or local park if they hadn’t been playing in the street that day. The clear answer was no. The responses from parents and children showed that the playing out session was usually an alternative to a less active option – watching TV or another sedentary indoor activity.

And the other intriguing question was around the idea of ‘compensation’. This is the question of whether being active during a playing out session means children flop on the sofa for longer afterwards and are ironically less active than they would have been normally (as many adults often are after a gym session!). Again the data showed that this did not happen to the children playing out and that they did not have a pattern of doing less activity after playing out to ‘compensate’ for the more vigorous play they had done.

Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England closed the conference by starkly stressing the urgency of improving children’s levels of physical activity and the need to make active play the norm once more. “It’s often said that the environment is an important health service,” said Professor Fenton. And he talked about both green spaces and urban spaces like streets, needing to be seen in this way – as potentially health-giving spaces for those spending time in them. The challenge both for the audience gathered at the conference, and for policy-makers and public health commissioners, is to support the idea of street environments as a ‘health service’ and to act on the growing body of research and data which clearly shows the benefits of street play. The evidence is there – not that anyone who has watched a playing out session has ever doubted it.

A few days after the conference my street played out again and this time as I watched the pink-cheeked skippers, legs blurred as they jumped faster and faster it felt inspiring to realise that what they were doing – so naturally and with so much fun – is part of something increasingly important to researchers and policy makers. You can read more about the University of Bristol’s research findings here. If you want to know how to support street play in your street, or work for an organisation interested in finding out more do get in touch.

This piece was originally posted on the playing out blog.

Print Friendly

Mayors at a gallop: the national influence of local leaders

In collaboration with the Institute for Government and the University of the West of England, researchers at the School for Policy Studies hosted a debate featuring the directly elected mayors of Bristol and Leicester. Tom Gash, from the Institute gives his thoughts on the debate in a post that was first published on the Institute’s blog.  Tom Gash-136

Elected in 2011 and 2012 respectively, George Ferguson (Bristol) and Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester) have been working hard to show what mayors can do for our cities. At a recent event hosted at the Institute for Government, Tom Gash heard them raise two questions that any government after May 2015 will have to answer. Should we have more mayors? And should they have more powers?

Elected mayors were first established in England following the election of the Mayor of London in 2000. Later that year the Local Government Act paved the way for votes to set up mayors in a number of other local authorities. Eleven more mayors had been introduced by 2002. The Coalition gave the model another push in 2010 but voters in nine English cities rejected the idea in another series of referendums in 2012. There were yes votes in Bristol and Salford, however, and Leicester and Liverpool have adopted the model. Ferguson was elected as an independent for the job in Bristol. Soulsby got the job in Leicester after giving up his seat as Labour MP for Leicester South.

Sir Peter Soulsby and George Ferguson

George Ferguson and Sir Peter Soulsby speaking at the event

At the event Ferguson and Soulsby were persuasive, passionate advocates for the extra power mayors can wield. Soulsby described the extra influence he’d acquired since stepping down as an MP. “I haven’t missed the life in Westminster,” he said. “Now I’ve got a proper job.” Ferguson spoke with infectious energy about his passion for raising Bristol’s profile and attracting investment.

Both have gained national recognition since taking on the mayoral role. Ferguson’s trade-mark red trousers are recognised well beyond Bristol’s boundaries, and he has quickly gained a national profile that no council leader in the city has previously enjoyed. Soulsby may not have the red trousers, but that didn’t stop him being accosted on his way to the event by a man wanting to thank him for his work in the city. “I was council leader for 17 years,” he said, and “no one said that”. They didn’t in his six years as MP, either.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are less complimentary, but there is no doubt that mayors enjoy greater public recognition than council leaders. According to Dr David Sweeting of the University of Bristol and Professor Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England, who are conducting research on the impact of the mayoral model, polls show that the proportion of Bristol residents who say that the city has visible leadership has grown from 24% to 69% since Ferguson took charge.

For Soulsby, the key difference between mayors and council leaders lies in their accountability. He outlined how council leaders were elected. “You don’t win it on the doorstep; you don’t win it on the pages of the Leicester Mercury… you win it by getting the support of your fellow councillors,” he said. He then held up a copy of a local newspaper. Its headline, referring to recent gridlock on the city’s roads, asked ‘who’s to blame?’ The question was a direct challenge to Soulsby, the mayor, to find out who should be held to account. Soulsby said that this accountability to the public had led to greater ambition. There had been, he said, a “whole load of risks I am able to take that I wasn’t able to take as a council leader”.

Ferguson pointed to the ability of mayors to act as a figurehead to attract investment. “You don’t invest in people you don’t know…we don’t have very good football teams [in Bristol] so we have to do it another way,” he said. And Soulsby said he enjoys far better access to secretaries of state than he had as an MP. As mayor he can also convene local public service leaders to sort out problems requiring co-ordination. Certainly, the two mayors’ belief in the power of the model chimes with previous Institute for Government research.

But it’s clear that not everyone is enamoured with the model. Ferguson, as an independent mayor, has had to overcome considerable resistance to the model from councillors who resent a perceived reduction in their powers – or in some cases simply dislike his policies. Much opposition has been “very civilised”, he said, but some “unbelievably vicious”. Soulsby spoke of his difficult relationship with Leicestershire’s Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, Sir Clive Loader. In response to questions, Ferguson reflected openly on some early mistakes in his stance towards councillors – in particular, referring to scrutiny by councillors as a “medieval process”.

However, he now feels he has built stronger, more collaborative relationships. Ferguson’s Cabinet of five councillors comes from four different parties, and Ferguson said he “couldn’t do the job without them”. He is also looking into how he can empower councillors in the city’s 14 neighbourhood partnerships. Soulsby claimed that scrutiny has become “very much more healthy… and effective” in Leicester since the change of model. Both agreed that the introduction of mayors does require a rethinking of the councillor’s role but did not believe that it would become less attractive in future. Soulsby spoke of “really quite good” candidates still coming forward for election in Leicester’s 2015 local elections.

The audience’s questions were mainly focused on the future. Some questions related to how the model of cities could be improved. Here, both mayors wholeheartedly supported the idea of greater proportional representation in local elections. Soulsby was clear that such a system would dramatically reduce his party’s power in Leicester but still believes the system would be far more functional.

Other questions focused on how cities could win further powers from Whitehall and Westminster and how the next government should think about and support city-regional government in England after May 2015. Ferguson pointed to his work bringing together Bristol with three neighbouring councils: “We call it CUBA… the County that Used to Be Avon.” He argued that the area is ready to take on transport powers similar to Greater London. Ferguson also appears to hope that walking the walk will accelerate devolution to the region. “I travel a lot,” he said, “and when I’m abroad I’m mayor of the city region” – not just selling Bristol, but Somerset and other neighbouring areas too. Soulsby wants local government to take on responsibilities from police and crime commissioners too. “I’m not quite sure what they’re meant to do,” he said. Both pointed to Greater Manchester, recent recipient of these powers as well as control of health, as the example to emulate in the next parliament.

They freely admit, however, that – though all parties have promised to devolve further after the election – no one knows what will happen next. Ferguson said further devolution to cities is “not inevitable” – a sensible view given broken promises in the past. And both recognised that gaining further powers is no more important than doing well with the powers they already have.

After all, come May 7, Peter Soulsby will face Leicester’s verdict on his first term as mayor. George Ferguson has a year longer to wait for the electorate’s judgement. And both may wait longer still to find out whether the mayoral model about which they are so passionate grows stronger and expands across England.

Further information
The event was hosted by the Institute for Government, the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.
Print Friendly

You the man

Geetanjali Gangoli, from the School for Policy Studies, on a novel way of changing attitudes to gender violence

There is increasing interest in the role of bystanders in preventing gender-based violence. You the Man is a 35 minute theatre- production combined with workshop that promotes bystander engagement addressing the themes of: promoting equal and respectful relationships between men and women; promoting non-violent social norms and reducing the effects of prior exposure to violence (especially on children); and improving access to resources and systems of support. The project has been used internationally in the fields of education, workplaces, local government, health and community services and the community.

 The University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender Violence and Research hosted a You the Man workshop last month led by international contributors Professor Ann Taket from Deakin University, Australia, Professor Cathy Plourde and actor Glenn Maynard. It brought together an audience of 25 local practitioners and policy makers. This group comprised advocates (such as Next Linkthe BridgeBristol Rape Crisis),  local community networks and agencies (including Bangladeshi Association, the Barton Hill Settlement), youth organisers (such as the Prince’s Trust), Bristol City Council and representatives from Bristol University and UWE.

The 35 minute one man play is based on responses and fears expressed by six men responding to the dating violence experienced by a young woman university student, Jana. It highlights the seriousness of unhealthy relationships and dating violence and how early intervention by family and friends may be able to help victims in these situations.

The play was followed by a panel discussion involving Professor Ann Taket, Professor Cathy Plourde, Glenn Maynard, Dr Geetanjali Gangoli, Dr Christine Barter (expert in intimate partner violence in teenage relationships), and Shabana Kauser-Iqbal from Women’s Aid and the Sky Project, an expert in BME communities. Having originated in Australia, the play was critiqued by the audience as to its ‘translatability’ into a UK context and more specifically to BME and/or sexual minority communities. Having already been effectively translated from its original American setting to an Australian setting, it was considered to be suitable for adaption to a UK audience (with further consultation with minority groups) – and particular interest was shown in introducing the play in university settings.  The audience heard about evaluations undertaken showing that the play was effective in changing attitudes to sexual and domestic violence in both the short and long term. Queries were raised about the need for support services not only for victims of sexual and domestic violence, but also for family members and friends; such support was said to exist to a limited degree in Bristol.

The play is a powerful and simple tool, requiring minimal resource. It can be effective as part of the strategy towards prevention of gender-based violence, increasing awareness, providing resource information, and changing attitudes to sexual and domestic abuse. This workshop is the first step to enable us in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research to build on our existing networks with practitioners and policy makers. It could be effectively used in conjunction with existing local programmes on reducing and preventing gender-based violence. We anticipate that such an initiative has potential to demonstrate long term impact and to change local policies.

GGDr Geetanjali Gangoli organised and moderated the workshop on behalf of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research. The workshop was supported by PolicyBristol, where this post was first published

Print Friendly

Understanding Gender Based Violence within national and international contexts

GG NANadia Aghtaie and Geetanjali Gangoli from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research in the School for Policy Studies introduce their new book

The endemic, universal and multifaceted nature of gender based violence is what drives the work of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research (CGVR), at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. Through our recent book (Aghtaie, N. and Gangoli, G. eds (2014) Understanding Gender Based Violence. National and international contexts. Routledge), we aim not only to contribute to scholarly debates on gender and violence,  but also to showcase some of the pioneering and original research conducted by members of the CGVR.  All the chapters in this book have contributions from current and former members of staff or post graduate research students attached to the CGVR.

While the Centre was formally created in 2009, members of the Centre have a long history of researching gender based violence at a local, national and international level, and feeding this into policy and practice. The CGVR grew organically from the Violence Against Women Research Group (2003) that emerged from the Domestic Violence Research Group (1990).All the members of the CGVR identify as feminist, and have a personal passion to end GBV, and our research has always originated from this desire.018

The CGVR works on all forms of GBV and interventions challenging it, and explores how violence, gender and power operate within intimate partner, interpersonal and structural violence, for example in the context of domestic abuse, prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation of women and girls, rape and sexual violence, domestic violence and disabled women and gender based violence for BME communities, young people’s experiences of intimate partner violence, online and offline,  same sex domestic violence and abuse, and international and comparative research on gender based violence, in a variety of contexts.

Based on the varied research conducted by members of the CGVR, the book aims to highlight the continuing, pervasive and varied nature of gender based violence in a range of countries and contexts, such as the UK, India, Iran, Rwanda and China. The chapters in the book focus on the importance of context and structure both nationally and internally The book both builds on, and expands on existing research, theories and methodologies on the issue; as well as, enters into some under researched geographical areas; and issues, such as children’s and young people’s experiences and attitudes to gender based violence and disability and domestic violence.

The book gives a taste of the many projects, studies, international reach and contributions to theories and practice of the CGVR. The Centre is now one of the largest research centre on gender based violence in Europe. Ultimately we believe and hope that the work done by the Centre does and will contribute to a more egalitarian society, where women, men and children, are free of the pressures to ‘do gender’ and are free of violence and abuse. This is, in our view, the core of feminist research.

The book will be launched on the 3rd December 2014 at the Common Room, 8 Priory Road, Bristol.  All welcome – book here!

 

Print Friendly

Nudge and the state

alexmarsh

Professor Alex Marsh, Head of the School for Policy Studies

Last week I took part in an enjoyable discussion on nudge policy as part of Thinking Futures, the annual festival of social sciences. Through a slightly mysterious process I ended up speaking in favour of nudge-type policies, while Fiona Spotswood from UWE made the case against relying on behaviour change initiatives. Fiona made a robust case. I have to say mine was a little less than compelling, in part because in reality I have quite a lot of sympathy with the critics. I find debating from a position you don’t entirely agree with more successful on some days and some topics than on others. This was not one of the better days.

Nonetheless, I find the topic of nudge, and behaviour change policy more broadly, fascinating because it raises so many issues.

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge was published in 2008 and has subsequently generated a vast critical response. Such a response is not uncommon. But what is rarer is that it has got everyone worked up. There is barely a discipline across the social sciences and humanities that hasn’t had something to say on the matter. Thaler is an economist and Sunstein a lawyer, but the critical response has gone beyond those fields to include philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, management, marketing, public health and public policy scholars. We have also seen cognitive and behavioural scientists offering views on the issue.

The critical response has addressed nudge from a wide variety of angles. Much of literature addresses the ethics of nudge. Is it ethical for governments to seek to exploit known systematic biases in human cognition in order to assist individuals in meeting ends they would desire, if they had stopped to think about it? A whole host of questions follow: how are those ends identified and by whom? Does this constitute manipulation? Is it acceptable or unacceptable for governments to manipulate in the ‘public interest’? Is it coercion? Is this the thin end of a wedge that leads to authoritarianism or even fascism (which is part of the critical response primarily among more libertarian-inclined lawyers/economists in the US)?

Is a failure on the part of government to nudge simply allowing other (private sector) economic actors a free hand to nudge individuals in all directions, without any countervailing action to mitigate the worst effects of private nudges? Perhaps the simplest way to make that point is to consider the nudge argument that if you place healthy food more prominently near the checkout in a cafeteria, rather than the confectionary that is usually there, then it increases the likelihood that people will eat healthily. Critics object to government manipulating choices in this way. But the prior question is why is the confectionary there in the first place? It is, of course, because the manufacturers of sweets know that we are prone to temptation and impulse purchases while standing in line. They are manipulating a systematic bias in our decision-making.

Of course, the alternative response to this problem is to seek to do something about the way private actors manipulate choice in the first place, rather than surreptitiously nudging in the opposite direction. But that would require a braver government than any we have seen in recent years.

A second strand of the argument focuses on the evidence base underpinning policy proposals. How well attested are these behavioural effects? One simple criticism of the literature is that much of the original experimental data comes from studies of the decision making practices of US undergraduates. To what extent do these conclusions generalise? Behavioural economics tends to assume that generalisation is unproblematic, but that is hardly a sound starting point for policy. Under the UK Coalition government the policy debate about behaviour change has been one area where considerable prominence has been placed on the role of evidence and on policy pilots. But it is an area in which one type of evidence – that drawn from randomised controlled trials – is seen as pretty much the start and finish of the conversation.

A third strand of argument is about the efficacy of nudge. Even if we accept that there is robust evidence of systematic biases in cognition (such as the tendency to weight current consumption more heavily than future costs when making decisions) what can be done with this information? Most importantly, is it a substitute or complement to other forms of government action? Can nudge be used instead of more paternalistic regulation, for example? This is a point that governments have been rather vague on. Nudge, when it arrived on the scene, was viewed as being able to stand in for more interventionist approaches. But this position has subsequently been modified in the face of criticism. It may be possible to improve social outcomes in modest ways using nudge techniques, but it is hopelessly underpowered for addressing some of the major challenges facing society.

Finally, there is the fact that “nudge” is rather elusive. By that I mean that it doesn’t refer to a very clearly defined set of actions. Or rather it has been applied to a wide range of actions and interventions that don’t really accord very well with the original definition of a nudge offered by Thaler and Sunstein – a definition which has, itself, been heavily criticised. The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team was colloquially referred to as the “nudge unit” but it drew much more broadly on insights from social psychology and behavioural science than simply focusing on nudges of the Thaler and Sunstein variety. There are now quite a number of other approaches to behaviour change circulating. Some of them have similarly catchy labels (think, steer, budge, shove). Some of them start from very different premises to nudge itself. Some have had an impact on policy in particular fields – with much of the running being made by the debate in public health. Some of them have yet to make much of an impact on policymaking in practice. The academic discussion is a riot of theoretical innovation, with various frameworks and heuristics being proposed. Some are engaged in the hard graft of evaluation and synthesis, with the aim of being clearer regarding what works, when and how.

An outstanding question is whether as the accounts of behaviour change become more complex and nuanced they start to lose their purchase on policy – which typically wants simple messages leading to clear prescriptions. But that is simply another case of the perennial tension between research and policy.

This post was originally published on Alex’s Archives.

Print Friendly