Friday, 27 August 2010

Pickles talks bollards.

The government, in the shape of portly Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, has declared war on the ‘clutter’ infecting Britain’s high streets, together with Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond he has written to councils across the country asking them to remove unnecessary signs and bollards from their streets.

Speaking to the BBC this week Mr Pickles said ‘too many overly cautious town hall officials are citing health and safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets.’ As a result, he said, Britain’s town centres are being ‘overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards and railed off roads. Common sense tells us, he said that ‘uncluttered streets are freer, safer and easier to maintain.’

Phillip Hammond also said that a clutter of signs in town centres ‘aren’t just ugly- it’s expensive and distracts drivers.’

Eric Pickles and Phillip Hammond have a point, the mad gallery of signs and road markings that turn the average town centre into the sort of maze that would give nightmares to a lab rat drive the public mad; and with good reason. Not least the lack of logic behind their presence, for example one Sainsbury’s car park highlighted in the BBC report had spaces for sixty three cars surrounded by fifty three bollards; madness.

It is, though, perhaps, a problem of perception, as Richard Kemp the Vice Chair of the Local Government Association points out ‘one man’s clutter is another’s simple signing.’ He also drew attention to the fine line councils have to walk balancing needs of ‘residents, businesses and those of motorists.’ He also makes the rather more important point that many of the signs, bollards and the like for which councils are being criticised for erecting by central government have been placed their following orders handed down from, you guessed it, central government. Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t eh.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth in the case against signs, losing a few would make life simpler and our streets tidier, but it is hard to disagree with Richard Kemp when he says this is ‘largely a local decision, not something a secretary of state should be involving himself in.’

There is about all this a distinct whiff of populism, like its opposition to speed cameras a government that is about to make itself really unpopular when the spending cuts come on stream is banking a few Brownie points by squaring up to an issue that features regularly in the letters pages of the Daily Mail. All of this is par for the political course, but still rather disappointing coming from Eric Pickles.

Pickles, aka the Tory who doesn’t look or sound like a Tory is one of the least spun members of the government and far too sharp to believe his brief is really about fiddling around with road signs and bus lanes. When the cuts, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week said would hit the poorest people hardest, come on stream in the autumn local councils will need a clear set of priorities and the courage to fight central government to protect local services from the axe. They have a right to expect the same from the minister tasked with representing them in the corridors of power.

If anybody tells you that fiddling about with road signs is something more than a displacement activity designed to distract attention from the planned dismantling of local services; they’re talking bollards.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

It’s the end of the line for nice guy Nick.

If they hadn’t entered into a coalition government with the Conservative Party back in May people would not be taking ‘any notice’ of the Liberal Democrats, says party leader Nick Clegg in a BBC interview due to be broadcast this weekend.

His comments come as the Lib Dems see their support slump from 27% at the time of the general election, back then it seemed like we all agreed with Nick, to 14% now; a sharp contrast to Labour who lost the election but have since seen a ‘surge’ in support, despite the deadly dull race for the party leadership. Needless to say there are more than a few Liberal Democrat back benchers looking at the polls and starting to worry.

Their leader though remains determinedly bullish airily telling the BBC that it is ‘one of the oldest rules in politics that parties in government see a dip in their popularity. Once upon a time a lot of otherwise sensible people thought that the charming Mr Clegg represented a new kind of politics; how wrong they were.

When he says that it would be highly unlikely for his party to be ‘able to defy the rules of gravity at a time when we are taking very difficult decisions of deficit reduction’ he is speaking with the voice of the old politics and setting the teeth of most of his listeners painfully on edge. It is a truism that being in government inevitably means being unpopular, but it does not necessarily follow that it also requires a fire sale of long held principles of the sort undertaken by the Lib Dems over the past hundred days.

In his party’s defence Clegg, who this week stood in as David Cameron went away on holiday, cites the promised referendum on voting reform and says that entering a coalition with Labour would have caused the party an even more serious identity crisis than the one Simon Hughes diagnosed it as suffering from this week. Neither of these fig leaves do much to preserve the modesty of a party that has gained power but very much lost its way in the process.

The referendum on voting reform, if it isn’t torpedoed by the Tory back benches, will present voters with a choice between keeping the system they know or embracing the confusing alternative vote system, meaning the status quo has a better than average chance of winning the day, something David Cameron understood from the start but which seems to have totally eluded nice guy Nick.

As for the possibility of forming a coalition with Labour at some unspecified date in the future, the chances of that happening were shot down by Ed Milliband who ruled the idea out were Clegg to still be party leader at the next election. He also wrote to him to attack Clegg’s policy on tax avoidance following a report in the Financial Times this week that the government planned to take a ‘softer’ line on the issue, even though the Liberal Democrats pledged to get tough with tax cheats during the election.

In truth Nick Clegg has little to fear from Ed Milliband or Labour in general, not least because it will be David rather than Ed who wins the party leadership. Once that happens the ‘surge’ in support for the party will rapidly dissipate, partly due to the grinding drudgery of opposition politics, but mostly because the election of David Milliband, who this week issued a list of daft instructions to activists planning to hold events supporting his campaign, as party leader will prompt the media to drown his tenure in ridicule.

What should concern Nick Clegg is the ‘identity crisis’ identified by Simon Hughes within his own party. The surge in popularity he experienced during the election was based on a belief that he represented a new and more progressive style of politics, in power though he has suffered from a failure of courage and a surfeit of naivety.

For all that he resembles a sit com clergyman the determinedly other worldly Simon Hughes is a good egg and as such has a keen nose for smelling out when one of the others in the basket is rotten. My guess would be that the egg in question has Nick Clegg’s face painted on it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Cool Britannia is dead; or is it?

Cool Britannia is the latest legacy of the New Labour years to bite the dust with David Cameron reading its eulogy at a meeting of tourism industry experts this week, at which he told them to concentrate on celebrating Britain’s heritage rather than trying to make the country look ‘cool.’

The British tourist industry was, he said, ‘not doing enough’ to break into the top five visitor destinations. As speeches go it was fairly bland but he does have a point, the contribution made to the economy by tourism could grow by as much as 60% by 2020.

Among the plans announced to get the tourists flocking to our shores announced by the prime minister was speeding up the process by which visitors from China can get visas to come to the UK. Currently Britain is the twenty second most popular destination for visitors from the world’s fastest growing economy, Germany is the fifth most popular and that, Mr Cameron said, just wasn’t good enough.

‘If we can’t always beat the Germans at football, then we can beat them at tourism.’ We shall fight them on the beaches, probably for the last sunbed.

The prime minister also turned his fire, predictably, on the legacy of the last government criticizing them for appointing eight tourism ministers in thirteen years and said: ‘They just didn’t get our heritage. They raided the lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn’t fit with their image of cool Britannia.’

Up to a point I agree with him, by the end of their tenure Labour didn’t get anything about British life past or present and much of the cool Britannia project was silliness incarnate. That said beneath all the foolishness there was a kernel of truth, you can’t have a reasoned debate about where the country is heading if you spend all your time looking back at an imperial past that will have slipped out of the reach of living memory within a generation.

The thing is though I’m not at all sure Sir David has slain the dragon of cool Britannia, or even much wants to.

By talking about ‘heritage’ David Cameron is playing to the Tory crowd, the more traditional of whom like thinking about ‘heritage Britain’ with its thatched cottages and country churches because it distracts them from the mess the coarser elements of their own party made of the country in the eighties. It’s another way of tipping a wink to the turnip Taliban that says ‘I’m really like you, all that modernisation guff is just put on for the press.’

Look a little closer and you will see that the spirit of cool Britannia is very much alive and well. Take that dig about beating the Germans at tourism even if we can’t beat them at football, Alistair Campbell could have written that for Tony Blair in his salad days.

Look closer still and you will see a trick involving smoke and mirrors being worked on the public that would leave even Peter Mandelson gasping at its cynical audacity.

When David Cameron says ‘We should be proud of our potential because we are proud of our country’ and that he ‘loves going on holiday in Britain’ he has in mind the report being compiled by John Penrose into the possibility of encouraging more Britons to holiday at home. In the process raising the amount they spend doing so from £16billion to £36billion.

Where is the problem with that you might ask? After all Britain is a country to be proud of and a great place to visit; so long as you have a choice. As the budget cuts bite over the next two years more and more people aren’t going to have a choice, they’re going to be luck if they’ve got enough money to afford a holiday at all.

At least way back in the long ago when Tony Blair invited the Gallagher brothers, Damian Hurst et al round to Downing Street to proclaim the new cool Britain had been born he had the grace to suspend his cynicism while they were taking the photographs.

Friday, 6 August 2010

The housing row that could break the ‘Brokeback Coalition.’

In England today 250,000 households are officially designated as overcrowded whilst a further 450,000 households are unable to easily downsize from larger homes. The government thinks it has a solution to this problem, one that involves a radical change to social housing policy and that may yet derail the coalition.

Under its proposals the government wants to create a ‘freedom pass’ for people living in social housing allowing them to move easily to another property anywhere in the country. The new National Home Swap scheme will, in theory, allow people living in social housing to have greater flexibility when it comes to relocating in search of work.

Their freedom to move from one part of the country to another may be improved; the security of the roof over their heads may well not be though, because the government also plans to end council house tenancies that are held for life. Existing tenants well keep their homes, but any new ones will have then years in council housing at most before being handed over to the private sector.

Speaking at a question and answer session in Birmingham this week Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘There is a question mark about whether, in future should we be asking when you are given a council home is it for a fixed period’ given, he said that people may, over the term of their tenancy move to a better paid job ‘looking at a more flexible system makes sense.’

Housing Minister Grant Shapps added to this later by saying that many council tenants were ‘trapped in their own homes’ as local authorities struggle to deal with ever growing waiting lists.

He went on to say: ‘This cannot continue, as we work to tackle the record budget deficit we must ensure vulnerable people benefit from but don’t become trapped by the safety net social housing provides.’

The enthusiasm of the Tory half of the coalition for reforming social housing does not seem to be shared by the Liberal Democrats, for whom Simon Hughes told the BBC’s World at One programme the plans were ‘a priministerial idea, it has no more validity yet and I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it could work.’

Seizing on the fact that the two partners in what former Tory leadership candidate David Davis described as the ‘Brokeback Coalition’ were heading for a lover’s tiff on this issue Labour’s Bob Ainsworth said: ‘proper government cannot be conducted if coalition partners are divided on such an important issue.’

Make no mistake there is a real problem with social housing in this country, in fact there are two problems.

The first is the chronic shortage of social housing at a time when getting a mortgage or even affording to pay rent to a private landlord is growing ever more out of the reach of many Britons, a problem that has been exacerbated by the ‘right to buy’ legislation of the 1980’s about which the Tory party still feel such misguided pride. Short tenancies and the freedom to move around will do nothing to increase the stock of public housing; all it will do is move people around from one dodgy private landlord to another.

The real solution to the shortage of social housing lies in giving councils the funds and the freedom to start building again for the first time in decades, an unlikely prospect as the public purse strings grow tighter by the year.

The second and equally pressing problem is the quality of the housing available. Only this week the Joseph Rownatree trust published research claiming that many people living in council housing feel they are seen as ‘ the lowest of the low’ by the rest of the population. There is, as Lynsey Hanley points out in her excellent book on the subject something about the grim architecture of post war housing estates that causes people to build up a ‘wall in the head’, to willingly limit their own options and, in the wrong set of circumstances, to lose the ability to exert any kind of agency over their lives.

Addressing these problems requires money and strength of will; they need steely David Cameron to go in to bat against the Troy backwoodsmen on the sort of social issues that he advocated in his cuddly ‘Dave’ incarnation. The likelihood of that happening is pretty small as is a fight being put up by an already compromised Liberal Democrat party, and so something else is needed; an engaged and effective opposition.

It is right that Labour have highlighted the potential for this issue to split the coalition, it is the job of an opposition party to find the chinks in the government’s armour, but they must go beyond doing just that. They must, for a start heed the findings of a YouGov poll this week which suggested that they embrace the ‘big society’ in order to regain the trust of the public.

It is a fact so simple as to be blindingly obvious to a party that isn’t numbed by the snail race to choose its next leader. Labour values, the ones the party had before it fell into the hands of Tony Blair and the marketing men, fit comfortably into the ‘big society’ in the way Conservative ones never could.

When it won the vote of middle England back in the 1990’s New Labour did so because it represented an alternative to Tory sleaze and arrogance, a good way to go about winning back the trust it lost over the past thirteen years might be to take up the battle for decent housing that is affordable by all.