The Great Depression Mark II

As predicted by the Bank of England (The longest recession ever), with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt [“The Minister for Murdoch”] set to play the catastrophic part of Conservative Chancellor Neville Chamberlain (1931-37), the latter who later went on to become Prime Minister before being forced out by his back benchers. Like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. What will 2027 look like?

I used the Imagine 2027 logo because it reminded me of the talks we had in the late 2010s in Cambridge, thinking of how now is a good time for a halfway check. Furthermore, the challenge from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has put down a very interesting challenge: To completely redesign local government and local public services across the country. For a new generation of talks, I think this would be a really useful theme to have. One that could cover the different local public services, and invite guest speakers to interact in a series of citizens assembly-style events to see what this might look like in and around Cambridge – including considering our space within our county, our region (East Anglia) as well as the country.

But first, the bad news.

Local Government will take a clobbering, as ministers and their supporting backbench MPs impose the costs of growth onto their own constituencies. Which bodes ill for them in the looming general election. It’s already happening.

Above – headlines on local public service cuts to health.

Do the opposition parties have any credible policies of their own that reflect the radical actions needed to deal with things like the climate emergency, massive inequalities, and an ageing society now showing the symptoms of chronic illnesses that the geography textbooks of the previous generation warned us of?

“The Treasury tilts spending towards the west and the north. Why?” Asks the East of England All Party Parliamentary Group. I think this is asking the wrong question – simply because the headline figures do not account for social need or economic potential. GO and ask Jen Williams of the FT, formerly of the Manchester Evening News.

Above – yet another reversal of Government policy on investing in large transport projects in the North of England. The path towards improved public transport infrastructure is littered with broken promises and unfulfilled dreams, whether John Prescott’s promise for an integrated public transport system within a decade of a Labour Government, to George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

Local Government conspicuous by its absence in recommendations from top civil servants

You can read the remarks here. One longstanding criticism of the senior civil service is the lack of experience in and understanding of local government. This was true in my civil service days when the then Cabinet Secretary Gus [now Lord] O’Donnell told us new Fast Streamers in the 2000s that in order to get on in the civil service we will need to get out at some stage of our careers and spend time in other sectors. The problem was that at the time there was no comprehensive and routine system to send civil servants out of the civil service on secondment, nor anything for local government and health service officers to go the other way. I still don’t think there is – although I’m happy to be corrected by it (as this would be progress!)

Part of that problem is that London is seen to be the place where all of the interesting stuff happens. And to some extent that’s true. London is different to any other city that I have experienced in the UK (even though technically I’ve only ever lived in three, I’ve been out and about to get a feel for them!) Scale, pace of life, variety, scale of problems, choice of opportunities, you name it. Yet at the same time there is something almost numbing – dehumanising even, for those of us that come there from smaller settlements, whether cities, towns, or villages. I was one of those that burnt out. I couldn’t hack it. But was that a sign of my weakness, or a broken system & city that deprives people of clean air, sleep, and exercise? You don’t want to know what colour a tube commute turns your snot!

I noticed similar sentiments towards Cambridge from people and politicians in the surrounding villages, where the larger settlement has a presence in those villages but not vice-versa. I even remember it on an even smaller scale at sixth form college in the 1990s. Staff at a couple of the schools that had their own sixth form centres at the time resented what they saw as this ‘academic powerhouse’ that got dozens of students into oxbridge as ‘creaming off their best students’ and then taking the credit for getting them into the two ancient universities – as if that was the only thing that mattered. And yet staff and students at that sixth form college barely even acknowledged the existence of the smaller centres – not least because more than a few of them lived outside of the city if not the county, so why would they?

Years later I would joke that such was the awe that the University of Cambridge was held in by the non-university staff working in Cambridge – especially the administrative staff, that the closer they lived and worked to the University, the higher up within it they pretended they were within the University while the closest pretended they were the (late) Duke of Edinburgh (the then Chancellor) himself!

Dare ministers and politicians give local councils greater financial autonomy to raise tax revenues locally and independently of Whitehall?

I.e. without the threat of ‘capping’, without the politically-loaded referenda on a regressive taxation system that automatically favours lower taxation, and one that does not incorporate the consequences of lower revenues? Not the present cohort in Parliament, which collectively has neither the calibre nor independence of thought and action to make this happen. The culture in Parliament is that serious policy initiatives must come from the Government. All MPs can do is to produce reports and recommendations. Such as this one from the Devolution All Party Parliamentary Group – which challenges ministers to do just that.

Read its page here – and note the consultancy (headed by former Labour MP Andy Sawford) that provides administrative support, and their team here (note the connections to the Labour Party – you can find similar, and more numerous examples with significant connections to the Conservatives too). It’s always worth asking: “Who is conspicuous by their absence?” when looking at the teams of people listed in public policy consultancies and lobby groups. Have a browse of the vacancies at http://www.w4mpjobs.org/ to get a feel for who is recruiting to lobby in which policy area.

“Future consideration should also be given to localised revenue-raising powers as part of future devolution proposals, in a move towards greater local fiscal autonomy.”

APPG Devolution – Inquiry into Levelling Up White Paper, Oct 2022

No Chancellor of the Exchequer has touched local government taxation policy since the end of the Poll Tax in 1990 – or the Community Charge [a single annual levy irrespective of income & wealth], which led to angry letters to The Times, a widespread non-payment campaign, riots in Trafalgar Square, and the fall of Thatcher. The replacement Council Tax was indexed to house prices in 1991. It still is! Successive governments have spent the past 30 years trying to avoid revaluing properties, so we’re stuck with a system where the amount you pay in council tax is indexed to the value of your house in 1991, or what it might have been if it had been built. Which is stupid-crazy-stupid.

The Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Select Committee calls for an overhaul of local government funding too – saying that ministers should:

“…Move to a long term sustainable funding model for local government in England. Put an end to the system of bidding for pots of money from the UK Government.”

Governance of England – 01 Nov 2022

(See more in my previous blogpost). The select committee goes further

“Despite successive Governments’ attempts to devolve more power to regions in England, the UK Government retains ultimate control of funding and decisions for England. Recent events demonstrate how the people of England can be left without important decisions being taken about their local areas at a local level.”

This ranges from the lack of railway investment in the north of England where few lines are electrified, through to the failure of water companies to invest in upgrading their infrastructure and not funding increased capacity for provision such as in reservoirs – something that is now a significant risk and barrier to the highly profitable life sciences and tech sectors in and around Cambridge.

Options include:

A land value tax (assessed here from the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy in the USA, and by Josiah Wedgewood for Labour in 1929 here)

A local income tax (assessed here by the IFS in 1991, and by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1992 here)

…and from a previous generation in 1956, other alternatives from the Royal Institution for Public Administration (abolished by John Major after being wound down by Margaret Thatcher)

What’s the point in having gleaming science labs if the taps run dry and if the only way to get to them is over pot-holed roads?

Ministers like to talk the talk about the sector but refuse to address the question of how to tax the huge wealth generated by the firms that are here and would like to locate here to pay for that infrastructure and public services.

As a result, we now face a situation where the growth that their lobby groups call for is actually costing the people of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire in terms of overburdened public services (you try and find an NHS dentist round here), the environment (our hydrosphere is already beyond capacity to the extent summer punting on the Cam will be like in Victorian times – punting through sewage sludge and effluent).

Private profit, private failures to deliver sound public services.

“Anglian Water is owned by a consortium of international investment funds. These include Colonial First State Global Asset Management (Australia) IFM Investors (Australia) and 3i (UK). Over 30% of the company is owned by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, a pension fund owned by the Canadian state.”

We Own It – on Anglian Water

There is no system of routine scrutiny or accountability for the main water company in East Anglia where members of the public can put questions to company executives or decision-makers. It’s not a PLC so there’s no annual general meeting for shareholders. Was this in line with what was promised by ministers at the time? Michael Hestletine – now seen as something of a soft Conservative, reaffirmed the guiding principles in 1994 in this publication

  • “Choice for consumers
  • competition amongst suppliers
  • improved productivity and efficiency
  • employee participation and wide share ownership
  • value for the taxpayer”
  • clarity of purpose for the Government

This came up in the 2017 General Election Hustings in Great Shelford, when Labour’s Dan Greef was asked about renationalising water.

Above – watch the exchange from 2017

If Cambridge’s wealth-creating industries want our city to be not only sustainable but one that is a nice place for everyone – and not just a haven for executives & intellects where you cannot find a plumber/builder/handyperson, then they need to spend less time making the case for growth and more time making the case for local government – including demands for a system of taxation that will provide funding for the sort of infrastructure that provides for us all. Make the case for a public transport system that is popular, accessible and environmentally friendly for rich and poor alike. Better to have the affluent using a public transport system with the rest of us than having everyone using motor cars. We’ve tried and tested that system to its limits in and around our city since the 1930s. We have also tried and tested the present system of local government structures (the two-tiered system established in 1974) to its limits. They have not worked. Time for something new. Are leading opposition politicians bold enough to lead they way on developing those radical new policies for the climate emergency age? Put the case to your local councillors. https://www.writetothem.com/

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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