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.

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.

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.

From Bristol City to Mexico City: New challenges for obesity research

In this blog, Simon Sebire from the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences and three PhD students reflect on new avenues of research into childhood physical activity and obesity in Low and Middle Income Countries and the opportunities and challenges this work presents.

New ideas emerge in the least likely places. As I listened to Professor Andy Gouldson present his research to the School for Policy Studies in spring 2014, I was inspired to sketch connections between some of Andy’s concepts (economic development and environmental issues) and my own (the psychology of motivating people to adopt healthy behaviours like being physically active). After the talk, I shared my scribbles with my colleague Prof. Russ Jago, only to find that he had an almost identical set.

Our thoughts had independently been transported from Bristol to Mexico and musings about the potential associations of urban development and rural-urban migration on the lifestyle behaviours of children and their families. This international perspective is not something either of us had previously pursued is but clearly had prompted some scribbling! The Mexico connection was inspired by three CONACyT-funded students, from Mexico, who at the time were studying our MSc in Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health and were considering PhDs.

Nearly 1 year on the three students (Ana Ortega Avila, Maria Hermosillo Gallardo and Nadia Rodriguez Ceron) are now PhD students in the School for Policy Studies Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences supervised by Prof. Russ Jago, Dr Angeliki Papadaki and I. They secured further funding from CONACyT to pursue their programme of research to study how various social, psychological and environmental factors might be related to physical activity and nutrition behaviours in children adolescents and their families in Mexico.

The causes of and response to increasing levels of obesity in low and middle income countries have been the focus of a recent Guardian Global Development Podcast. The podcast draws on the experiences of children, families, health practitioners and campaigners from South Africa and Mexico. In Mexico 73% of men, 69% of women and approximately 35% of adolescents are obese or overweight which is higher than in the USA. It is clear that there is much to be done to both treat those who are already overweight and prevent the development of obesity in young people. However, extrapolating our existing research and knowledge of what we think drives obesogenic behaviours in places like Bristol to the context of people’s lives in Mexico presents a number of challenges.

Ana, Maria and Nadia have a wealth of experience from previously working in Mexico as nutritionists or within the food industry, so I asked them to listen to the podcast and share their insider’s view of the challenges ahead:

Maria referred to the potentially damaging effects of families in Mexico aspiring to an American lifestyle dominated by unhealthy foods and sedentary behaviour:

The blog says that processed foods and junk food are one of the main causes of overweight and obesity increasing in Mexico, which is partially true, but I think it has to do a little bit more with what I call “junk behaviours”. For example, how mums from rural areas prefer to give their children processed foods instead of home-made meals because they heard somewhere that people from USA consumed them, and because Americans always choose right (at least that’s the belief in some parts of Mexico); junk food and processed foods are the way to go for feeding their children.

Ana suggested that this influence may be strongest in regions closest to America and highlighted the broader problems associated with researching an issue which is geographically diverse:

Mexico is among the largest countries in the world geographically and demographically (118 million people); where differences in dietary pattern exist between rural and urban areas or between north, central and south regions.I have always lived in the northwest and the influence of the U.S.A. is visible in a lot of aspects in our life compared to the centre or south of the country. Our dietary patterns are based on American food choices and less on the Mexican traditional diet.

Ana, Maria and Nadia all added that the potential mismatch between perceptions of wealth and health may be making being overweight an aspiration:

Ana: In my experience as a nutritionist there are a number of cultural misconceptions among population when it comes to healthy nutrition. For example, being a little overweight still means you are healthy and well-nourished whereas being thin means you are unhealthy or sick. People don’t see overweight as a problem, on the contrary, they see it as something normal.

Nadia suggested that such perceptions may prevent parents from identifying obesity as a potential health problem in their children:

I think the healthy body image is distorted as family, friends or in the streets, the most common thing is to see someone obese; and that is really concerning because how will they do something to improve their health if they don’t even think there’s a problem. 

Ana, Maria and Nadia reflected on the challenges of applying our physical activity and nutrition research findings which are largely based on evidence from developed countries such as the UK or USA to the context of middle income countries such as Mexico. A good example is parents’ perceptions of safety when letting their children play outside of the home. In UK research, including some in Bristol by my ENHS colleagues, we tend to focus attention on the presence of traffic or children’s risk of injury while unsupervised. In contrast, perceptions of safety in Mexico are measured nationally with questions including those related to the risk of kidnap, existence of violent gangs in the neighbourhood, armed robbery and frequency of firearms shootings. 73.3% of the participants in the 2014 National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Public Safety (ENVIPE) in Mexico reported not feeling safe in their local areas. In addition to the safety implications of conducting research in this context, it is clear that current measures of parents’ perceptions of their child’s safety to be active outside the home will not be sufficient and Nadia has plans to develop a new tool.

In addition, the political landscape challenges us to consider different ways in which our research may be best able to impact on health policy:

Ana: The political context in Mexico is complex, the government is dealing with high levels of insecurity and corruption, events that prevent the government from focusing on other matters such as the implementation of new health policies.

Maria believes that more is needed to be done to educate policy makers in addition to the public: There is a huge educational barrier, both governmental and individual, which makes difficult to take seriously the obesity and overweight problem.

Nadia: All those factors are completely different to high-income countries, and makes the context a complex matter to understand when almost all the research has developed in a completely different contexts with a wider range of opportunities to change or create policies that have a real impact in the population’s health. 

In summary, over the last year or so, I have been transported from Bristol city to Mexico City thanks to a fortuitous combination of research daydreaming and inspiring MSc (now PhD) students.  As a supervisor, my initial conversations with our new students has forced me out of my research comfort zone, an experience which has been echoed and reported by researchers in the International Physical Activity and the Environment Network in Latin America. Undoubtedly, our success in co-producing research which could have international impact will require us to work together to combine our collective knowledge to understand the context and key drivers of obesity-related behaviour change in Mexico.

Thanks to Ana Avila Ortega, Maria Hermosillo Gallardo and Nadia Rodriguez Ceron for their contributions.

  • Ana’s PhD focusses on the development of a social media intervention to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in  Mexican older adolescents
  • Maria is studying the associations between urbanicity in Mexico and lifestyle behaviours and the influence of the rural urban transition on family health.
  • Nadia’s PhD focusses on the environmental and social correlates of physical activity in children in Mexico City.

Dr Simon Sebire is Lecturer in Physical Activity & Exercise Psychology in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences (ENHS) in the School for Policy Studies.The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) confirm the Centre’s international reputation for research excellence within the field of physical activity, nutrition and health. ENHS was rated 1st overall in the UK.

 

Informing the debate on directly elected mayors

David-SweetingDavid Sweeting

Recently George Osborne announced the creation of a ‘metro-mayor’ for Greater Manchester. In doing so he has joined a long line of heavyweight politicians who have endorsed the idea of directly elected mayors as at least part of the solution to issues in urban governance in English cities. From as far back as Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s, via Tony Blair, and through David Cameron the idea of a single figure to govern our cities has resonated strongly in Whitehall. In the press release on Manchester’s metro-mayor, Osborne is quoted as saying: ‘This will give Mancunians a powerful voice and bring practical improvements for local people, with better transport links, an Oyster-style travelcard, and more investment in skills and the city’s economy.’ The prospect of other cities introducing similar figures is clearly back on the agenda – whether on existing city boundaries or across a city-region.

One of the frustrations in the debate around directly elected mayors is the lack of empirical evidence around which to base judgements on their impact. Competing camps tend to paint over-idealised or over-pessimistic scenarios, depending on the position they wish to advocate. The pro-camp points towards the creation of a powerful central focus for urban governance. A leader of place rather than the council, this figure increases interest in civic affairs and is able to use their profile for the good of their areas, joining up diverse interests, and is firmly held to account at the ballot box every four years. The anti-camp tends to warn of the dangers of centralisation, with a directly elected mayor able to have free rein over the electoral cycle, yet with no reason to suppose that this figure is better able to work with diverse interests than traditional council leaders in their areas, often with concerns about the ‘wrong’ sort of person being elected.

In 2012 Bristol introduced a directly elected mayor, based on the city council area of Bristol. The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is analysing the introduction of the new system, drawing on empirical data from before and after its institution, both from members of the public in Bristol, and from different sectors involved in the governance of the city. We have reported our most recent analysis in our Policy Briefing, published via Policy Bristol.

Here I discuss two findings that are likely to be of interest in the debate around the introduction of mayors in other cities. The first is that there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of citizens who agree with the statement ‘the city of Bristol has visible leadership’. It has risen from 24.1% in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, to 68.6% in 2014. This is a startling rise, and provides a boost to those who argued for the introduction of a mayor in Bristol on the basis that existing city leadership lacked sufficient public profile. The second is that there are very different views on the introduction of the mayor in different sectors of governance in the city. Our survey of civic leaders in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, found that, on the whole, councillors were much less positive about the introduction of a mayor than other respondents from the public, private, and third sectors in the city. This is significant because directly elected mayors are often advocated on the basis that they will facilitate positive relationships across the city beyond the council chamber. Our research suggests that this may well be the case, but there clearly would be work to be done to convince councillors of the benefits of the system.

Our project in Bristol is ongoing, and in future we will be able to report a much larger, more rounded set of results. As we have data from both before and after the introduction of the mayoral system in the city, our work is well placed to shine light on claims about profile and visibility, or relationships between sectors, as a result of changing the system of governance, as reported above. Of course, there are limits to these claims, both as a result of methods used, and as a result of the complex nature of urban governance. For example, survey research is not sophisticated enough to disentangle the impact of the change in governance system and the change in political leader. There are also limits to the transferability of these results beyond the Bristol context. In relation to ‘metro-mayors’, for example, there is the issue that the mayoral system in Bristol was introduced on existing city boundaries, whereas, for example, the Manchester proposals are across the sub-region. This inevitably adds a layer of complexity when establishing new governance structures that are both effective and democratic. We nevertheless hope that other cities considering a variant of the directly elected mayor model of decision-making will find these results very useful in thinking through the consequences of introducing mayoral governance in their cities.

David is Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is being carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol, and the University of the West of England, Bristol, and has benefitted from ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funding.

This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies, discusses gendered violence

010-savile

People around the World are currently engaged in 16 days of activism against gendered violence.  Communities across different nations are challenging the inequality which some men interpret as an excuse to violate and oppress those, predominately women and children, who are more vulnerable than themselves.

This image is being used with permission from J.Fleming

This is a global phenomenon which has landed in the middle of our city of Bristol. I drove past the Premier Inn on my way to work this morning.  The same hotel where last week it was revealed that a young, vulnerable, girl of 13 had been raped and sexually abused by a group of men who had been grooming her for sexual exploitation.  That building used to house Bristol Social Services.

It is possible that I have met this young woman, or someone like her, during the course of our research on the needs of homeless women or in the recent evaluation of a nearby Child Sexual Exploitation project.

She could be Jasmine, not her real name, who we first met when she was 19.

But when I got kicked out the last time, that was the only person who I could go to … but he’s on like a paedophile thing, he’s on the sex offenders for life … and he’s just not right in the head. […] Not … he never done nothing to me … or that I know about … cos he could have done it when I was asleep … but I never felt safe there. It was just horrible. (Jasmine, age 19)

When we spoke to her again, she told us

When I think back to that I do get very paranoid thinking he might have put stuff in my drink and … cos I just would not put it past him.  And … but I try not to think of it, cos I’d never find out now. (Jasmine, age 19)

When Jasmine told us about this she did so with a resignation and matter of fact honesty.  She genuinely does not know, on that occasion, if she was sexually assaulted or not.  The rest of Jasmine’s story has an inevitability about it, for example she told us about both her current and ex- ‘boyfriend’:

One time my ex-boyfriend, he hit me before … this was like proper punches to the head … never got the police involved when I should have.  But this one’s a bit different – although he’s physical, he’s like in your head.  That’s what he’s more like – he tries brainwashing you. (Jasmine, age 19)

And about how she coped with alcohol and drugs:

I know it sounds stupid, but I was just thinking a bit religiously and thinking it’s not natural, this is not what God like wanted you to do – take drugs and drink all the time. There’s got to be more to life than that (Jasmine, age 19).

Speaking with older homeless women, the vast majority of whom had experienced domestic or sexual violence throughout their lives and used alcohol and drugs as a coping strategy, demonstrates how the abuse of vulnerable girls and women continues overtime with immeasurable personal costs.

Blossom was 52 when we spoke to her:

[…] this person I’d known from last year, […] he harassed me going along the road, he wouldn’t leave me alone … he said “I need to talk to you” … and the outcome was I was assaulted […] And you see the thing is I knew him when I had nowhere to live, and I stayed there for a night.  And people don’t realise how vulnerable you are when you have nowhere to go. […] you’re vulnerable to all sorts of people.  And believe me I’ve met people that are not nice, and they take advantage of the situation. (Blossom, age 52)

Or Daisy and Ginger who spoke to us about staying in a mixed homeless hostel:

[…] the mixed [shelter], it ain’t safe in there because being women, sometimes I’d get a lot of attention from men, you know?  […] you don’t like waking up in the night getting touched or things going that shouldn’t be going on, you know what I mean?   (Daisy, age 30)

Yeah it’s mostly men, there’s only four women there.  It can be a bit agitating, cos the men there think they can just grab you when they’re drunk and do what they like, you know, but they can’t really can they? (Ginger, age 49)

The Bristol case yet again highlights the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls but it also challenges us all, as a society to reconsider how we respond to victims and how we all contribute to the reality in which abusive behaviours, across the continuum from wolf whistling to rape, are experienced and understood.

Whilst the media is rightly abhorred by the rape and sexual exploitation of young vulnerable girls, it doesn’t ask about the wider dynamics of gender and power which contribute to such abuse taking place.  When exploited girls talk about perpetrators as their ‘boyfriends’ it is in a context where society teaches young women to judge their self-worth on the basis of women’s objectification in the eyes of men.  Where they are bombarded by objectifying images on a daily basis in our newspapers, on TV, and on the cover of magazines.  Where senior executives from one of our national TV stations think it is ok to represent the harassment and abuse of women as tongue in cheek comedy entertainment.

In Bristol we have a council that sanctions licenses for sexual entertainment venues – whilst simultaneously seeking to educate young people in the city about respectful relationships. What we need to realise is that the violence and abuse experienced by women and children is inextricably linked to gender and inequality.  If we fail to challenge the latter, we fail to address the root causes of abuse and let victims and survivors down.

Dr Emma Williamson

Anyone who wishes to donate to a local Bristol charity which works with vulnerable women in relation to sexual exploitation might wish to donate to:

http://one25.org.uk/

http://www.sarsas.org.uk/

 

Policy & Politics conference 2014

policy-politics-journal-cover

In what has become an annual event, the Policy & Politics conference was held in Bristol in September 2014. Policy & Politics is an academic journal that centres on the areas of public and social policy. The journal is published by Policy Press and has long been associated with the School for Policy Studies, who currently provide a co-editor (Sarah Ayres, Reader in Public Policy and Governance) and two Associate Editors (Noemi Lendvai, Lecturer in Comparative Public Policy, and David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies).

In the array of panels at this year’s Policy and Politics conference were three linked panels on directly elected mayors, containing twelve papers from five countries. These panels linked clearly to the overall conference theme of challenges of leadership in collaboration in the 21st century. Directly elected mayors are often seen as a reform to help improve the leadership of cities, in part by facilitating or leading collaboration between actors both within, and well beyond, the boundaries of urban areas.

The panels, and the topic of directly elected mayors more generally, are addressed in Alex Marsh’s ‘Policy Unpacked’ series of podcasts, hosted on Alex’s blog. You can listen to the podcast here.

David Sweeting is Senior Lecturer, and Alex Marsh is Professor, in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Alex is also Head of the School.

Citizens, mayors and democracy in the city

As part of Democracy Week in Bristol, last Friday academics from the University of Bristol and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) took part in a seminar on citizens, mayors and democracy in the city. The event drew on research co-produced with research partners in local communities, including local policy communities. The participation of colleagues from Mexico was made possible by support from the British Academy. In this post Jo Howard, the SPS doctoral student responsible for organising the event, gives her perspective on the afternoon’s discussions.

Both Mexico City and Bristol now have directly elected mayors. Both cities are experimenting with ways of engaging citizens beyond the ballot box. In Mexico City, citizens can take part in participatory budgeting. In Bristol, neighbourhood partnerships bring residents, councillors and service providers together to address local issues and make decisions about local service provision. The seminar explored to what extent these mechanisms deepen democracy. And if citizens have more decision-making power, how does this affect the role of councillors? Continue reading