Wednesday, 4 February 2015

How do we pay for our cities?

I’m going to start this post with a story which points to many of the problems I want to briefly discuss. My swimming training takes place in the pool of a local school that my coaches hire out. Just before Christmas the boiler broke down so the pool was closed down. We rolled our eyes because if a swimming pool boiler breaks down then invariably it’s not easy to fix. When the kids returned to the school for their prelim exams in January the boiler was still not fixed. For two weeks kids sat freezing in classrooms, struggling to write their exams because their hands were so cold, and collapsing in class due to the fumes from the emergency gas heaters that had been dragged in. Eventually this lurid story hit the local press and the school was eventually closed, the boiler repaired (temporarily) and the school and pool reopened. During this enforced break from swimming I eventually lost patience and went to the Royal Commonwealth Pool for a swim. As I got out to get changed, I noticed the lockers had ESPC adverts on the end of them. I’ll be honest, as a subject of global neoliberalism, my immediate thought was “ooh, good idea. Why aren’t there more adverts around here to keep prices down and keep the place open? Rebranding it “The Speedo Royal Commonwealth Pool” would probably pay to keep it open for a couple of days”.

I know as a good left-winger I should have been shocked and appalled by this creeping privatisation of “public space” but I wasn’t really. But this concern – that we’re selling our cities to private companies – is becoming much more part of public debate in Edinburgh, and Scotland as a whole. The examples we are getting are not quite as egregious as some of the stories you hear from London, or the infamous cases of Liverpool One and Cabot’s Circus in Bristol, where entire city centre blocks have been sold to private developers, but we are getting smaller examples, such as "Edinburgh's Winter Festivals" (courtesy of Underbelly).

The stories seem to be particularly emerging in Edinburgh because the cut-and-thrust of this sort of capitalism rubs up against heritage, particularly in the New Town (never mind that the New Town was a speculatively built development, and when the banking crash of 1825-6 happened it was partly driven by this speculative development and stalled the Scottish economy for decades, as you can see on Claremont Street [thanks Eleanor!]). Local hyper-local the Broughton Spurtle has been doing it’s usually stirring raising quite a few concerns about how the Business Improvement District Essential Edinburgh have been using Saint Andrews Square and how the Council more broadly are using the city centre to lever in more resources – the latest being the proposal to wrap our shiny new trams in advertising. 

Now, much as I didn’t bat an eyelid about ESPC advertising to me in my swimming trunks, some of these changes do concern me – I’m not such a pragmatist that I’d be that right-wing. However, there’s two ways, as I see it, of unpacking this. Firstly, that this is just part of global trends of city competitiveness, and this quite rightly should be resisted. However, in the case of Edinburgh and most other cities in the UK, I do think we have to have an honest discussion about how we pay for our cities.

It’s easy to presume in Scotland that cuts to local government are something that England has to deal with – the Scottish Government has fully-funded the Council Tax freeze, hasn’t it? The reality is quite grim, as the Accounts Commission report into Edinburgh Council and reporting of recent cuts has made clear. The City of Edinburgh Council itself has to lose 1,500 staff. If you played around with the council's online budget calculator, the one thing you had to do was cut services somewhere and somehow. I have my differences with the Scottish Improvement Service for local government, but last week they posted this very impressive bit of work demonstrating how local authorities in Scotland are meeting the challenge of the “scissors of doom” – declining budgets and rising demand for services. But there's only so much of that sort of stuff local councils can do before services start to suffer.

If a local authority, like Edinburgh, has to cut over 10 per cent of its budget, while in real terms costs are increasing, then it needs to find some way of funding very expensive services like a city centres. Put simply, the grass in Saint Andrews’ Square is not going to mow itself (unless we invest in a city centre flock of sheep). This is related to the general mess of local government finance in Scotland and the fact that the Council Tax freeze has left local authorities completely powerless to do anything – on this I could not agree with Ken Gibb more. But it also raises a much simpler question – if the people of Edinburgh, or any other city, want a nice city centre, without private sector investment in the form of advertising and things, then we will have to pay for it through higher taxation. And, as with all tax/spend political debates, this is a debate we’re utterly unwilling to have. We’ll happily rail against the commercialisation of city centres without suggesting an alternative of how else the services that keep it going can be paid for. And unless we do consider coughing up more money in tax, then this creeping commercialisation will happen. Either that or our city centres will end up looking like the worst American downtown, and then we'll really be complaining. So, to go back to my swimming pool - what would I rather have, a closed broken pool, or some adverts?

As a concluding statement, I just want to reflect on who pays. One thing that concerns me at the moment is that even anti-austerians on the left don’t really push at who is paying tax. Increasingly the tax base is being shifted to labour; in the UK through income tax, national insurance and VAT. Tax on capital (particularly Corporation Tax) is falling. This is in a world where the returns to labour (wages) are falling, whereas the returns to capital (profits) are rising. This is why I’m against a basic income – capital deserves to pay labour a good return for its labour through wages, and a basic income paid for through taxes on labour completely fails to do this. How does this link to my city centre services? Well, if you thought Council Tax was a complete mess, don’t look at Business Rates, possibly the biggest example of an utterly disastrous tax in the UK.* The vast majority of it is paid to central government and then redistributed to local councils. This was done in the 1980s to stop Militant councils using increases in Business Rates to pay for improved services. So, if we were to increase Council Tax, or another local tax on labour, to pay for city centres then effectively it would be yet another redistribution of the profits of labour to capital. So, while the voluntary payment by businesses of improvements to city centres – through BIDs, sponsorship etc. – might not be ideal, at least it’s not a tax on labour.

* honestly, the more I hear about Business Rates, the more I just end up thinking "what?", "eh?", "really?", "why on Earth?" etc. etc.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Queer-ying gentrification

18 months ago my colleague Dr Kirsten Besemer blogged on here about a surprise finding from some work we had done for the EHRC in Scotland – that a disproportionate number of non-heterosexual people lived in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. We’ve since written this up as a journal article now published in Housing Theory and Society.

In writing up the paper we set the findings in the broader gentrification literature. As Kirsten wrote about back in 2012, this was because the narrative of LGBT households as gentrification pioneers is dominant. Growing up, one of the formative events in my emerging sexuality was watching the Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk. Aiden Gillen’s character Stuart typified this narrative – he lived in a swanky loft apartment in central Manchester, in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, paid for through his successful career, despite the homophobia he had experienced in his life. Similarly, in a lot of American scholarship on the creative class, LGBT households are synonymous with the creative class. If you’re a gay man, you’re rich and live in a loft apartment.

Reading through the literature on gentrification and LGBT residential location choice that I did for this paper, it was surprising how much this narrative has not been troubled – even though Loretta Lees in this article from 2000(£) argued that gentrification scholarship needed a much greater focus on issues of gender, ethnicity and sexual identity as well as class. Apologies if I did miss out on particular literature, but the stuff that came up in my literature search was predominantly accepting of the gay gentrification narrative.

There are two issues with this. Firstly, it does smack of a growing heteronormativity that has been particularly noticeable in the debates around equal marriage. Gay men are now just seen as men, in fact they’re almost seen as uber-men as they aren’t burdened with childcare, and just want to settle down with their husband in a very tastefully decorated house. This ignores the “little things” that Panti Bliss talks so evocatively about that frame how non-heterosexual people experience the world. Yes, we have seen the declining significance of homophobia in our society, but as a non-heterosexual you still find yourself censoring your behaviour; or feel that lump of fear in your throat when you reveal the gender of your partner to a relative stranger. To presume that non-straight households are always gentrification pioneers, or increasingly second-wave gentrifiers, is to ignore diversity within the non-straight population, and impose a heteronormativity upon non-heterosexual people. If data on sexual orientation at a neighbourhood level is available for other countries, I would strongly encourage others to repeat our analysis to see if this is a Scottish phenomenon, or a broader one.

The second issue is one of the policy implications of recognising that the lives of non-heterosexual people might be difficult and therefore they find themselves living in socially-rented housing in deprived neighbourhoods. As we stated in our original Hard to Reach report it is all too easy to presume Scotland’s deprived neighbourhoods are homogenous, white, heterosexual working class areas. We have shown they are not. Our finding might be a geographic fluke because the non-heterosexual population is so small, although tests of statistical significance show it is not. That this non-straight population living in deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland is comparatively older, does give credence to the description an older LGBT-identifying friend described, of lots of older non-straight people who had pretty difficult lives, living in social housing in the west of Scotland. If we accept this, then we need to consider whether services for non-heterosexual people need to move out of inner-city locations, or that mainstream services in deprived neighbourhoods need greater skills and training around helping a non-heterosexual population that might have multiple problems. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Why I'm voting no

No this isn't about Indyref. This is about the University Superannuation Scheme. And I'm angry. I've voted to reject the latest proposals and I just wanted to state why:

The accrual rate is bloody awful. Even the 1/75ths is far worse than other schemes. I could get a lower paid job in a school or a Scottish local authority and retire on a higher pension. The argument is "well at least we still get a lump sum". Yes, but that lump sum starts being devalued the moment you get it, while accrued pension gives you guaranteed income for the rest of your life.

The cap at £55,000 on defined benefit is grossly unfair, especially if you have a) any desire to ever be promoted or b) hope that your wage will rise faster than CPI inflation (which the £55k cap will be linked to). People who earn more get a hell of a lot more out of final salary schemes and defined benefit schemes and live longer. This is unfair and unaffordable, the but the way you deal with that is through graduated contributions - the more you earn, the more as a percentage you pay in.

The cap is also divide and rule. Once this is introduced all those on salaries over £55k (the bosses) will not give a shit about the DB scheme as it will provide such a pittance of their pension. The shift to FS and and CARE schemes in USS was already divide and rule, but the way to overcome this is to move us all onto a more generous CARE scheme. And remember, that VC with his tax-free pension pot on his salary of £250k won't need to worry about investing it in an annuity with a decent return. All the other sources of private income will mean he will be able to splash out on a Lamborghini with his pension pot.

We have not been told what other options there are to close the deficit. I want to know: what employer and employee contributions will have to increase to in an alternative recovery plan maintaining final salary; and what they would have to increase by to maintain defined benefit.

Pensions policy in the UK has been a complete mess for the past 60 years and we're all paying the price for this. However, workers should not shoulder the entire burden as we are increasingly doing. Employers have to shoulder their responsibility, and cough-up when they've done things like take contribution holidays. We also need long-term sustainable solutions, not knee-jerk reactions to current market conditions.

Returns on annuities, particularly gilts, are very low at the moment, so schemes are spiraling into deficit. However, globally the returns to capital are increasingly massively. All those headlines about "growing inequality" - that is because the returns to capital are increase and the returns to labour (wages) are being eroded. Pensions are deferred wages. We need to fight for organised labour. So vote no. Defend USS.

(apologies for any factual errors on accrual rates etc; pensions are complicated; I only have so much blogging time)

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Top five posts of 2014

So, I'm watching Mary Poppins on the telly so I thought I'd jump on a bandwagon and do a quick post of my most popular posts of 2014. In fact the top two for 2014 are the number two and three for most hits this blog has received ever. My rant about the sheer stupidity of 2013's Niceway Code 'I am not a horse' still holds the record for most hits at 1664, although my top post of 2014 (see below) overtook it briefly in November.

Anyway, in reverse order we have:
5. Why the Improvement Service is Wrong on This One - where yet again, I felt I had to make some pretty basic statements about how to interpret indices of multiple deprivation.

4. Why I am not a Planner nor Proud of Planning - where I gave up on the planning profession because the outcomes I see in terms of development are just so poor and decision-making is just dominated by a desire to see development happen no matter what the cost.

3. Making Peace with Cambridge - a very personal post, reflecting on student mental health, social class, and my own experience of attending an elite university. 

2. Why I'm a Swithering Yes Voter - where I outlined some of the reasons why I voted Yes in the referendum for Scottish Independence.

1. Scotland Decides - where, two months later, after I'd voted Yes, I eventually got sick of the nationalist campaign and ranted about how ridiculous the whole thing was. I now wish I'd voted no (and really want to know how many people there are out there like me). I'm very glad this has managed to get (substantially) more hits than my Yes post. 

Suffice to say that this blog gets most traffic when I don't blog about my research. The only reason why the fifth most popular post got so many hits was because it was responding to a piece in Holyrood magazine and the journalist was kind enough to retweet it and engage me in twitter chat about it. At this rate I might as well give up on here and stick to A Lidl Bit of Middle Class Pleasure.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Thinking about evaluation

The project I'm PI on at the moment comes to an end in a fortnight's time. It's been all about evaluation. Wrapping it up, writing and due to a couple of other things, I've been thinking a lot about evaluation. 

The first thing that made me think, a lot, was this story from the BBC - "University study says city's 'Triple P' parenting scheme 'a failure'". Two things I find most interesting are firstly that the evaluation did find triple-p was a failure (more of that later) and secondly the reaction from the partners who commissioned the evaluation. The partners, particularly the Health Board, immediately dismissed the evaluation it seems. I would love to have been studying the whole process from the outside because I'm left with a number of questions:

  • Were the partners ready and willing to hear results that were negative?
  • How was the evaluation commissioned? And what project oversight was there as it ran? (why wasn't this foreseen?)
  • How did the evaluation team work? Did they communicate interim findings?
  • Do the partners have a learning culture where they are ready to reflect on failure, develop and move on?
  • Why did they spend money commissioning an evaluation and then dismiss the results in this way? Is this an efficient use of limited resources?

Obviously, I've neither read the evaluation, or been part of this process, so these will have to be left as questions. However, I find it interesting that the Health Board are quoted as saying: "The result is an incomplete evaluation based on very limited data and conclusions that do not stand up to scrutiny" which, to me, does not suggest a learning culture at all; it suggests a culture where if you're criticised the first thing you attempt to do is undermine your critics. 

I wonder if a weakness here was the lack of a developmental approach to evaluation overall by all parties. The project I'm leading has fallen into using developmental evaluation - it's essentially just a process of testing things through a process and then stepping back and reflecting on why the worked or did not, and moving forward. It aims to create a learning context within partnerships. 

The second thing that made me reflect on evaluation was a bit of developmental evaluation happening in transport in Edinburgh. For a year, the Council have made George Street a one-way street for vehicles and made the other side of carriageway a two-way segregated cycle way with some huts outside restaurants for the smokers and people foolish enough to want to eat outside in Scottish weather.

I love the George Street cycle path. I can cycle at the speed I want to go, rather than the speed determined by being chased by a Wheeled-Black-Both-Of-Death (taxi). It has some teething issues - for practical reasons, as it's an experiment it swaps side at Frederick Street. You have to follow the path through, something which I've always found very easy. The traffic lights at Hanover Street take an age to change, but they do for everyone. The exit and egress could be a lot better - it's an island of very good cycling provision in and amongst a load of guff though, so at the moment there is nothing to connect it to. In it's pragmatism it reminds me a lot of the Danish and German cycling infrastructure that I've seen, rather than the Dutch. It's far from perfect, but it keeps you a lot safer and it's more pleasant than the road before. 

But what I like most is it is an experiment - the Council are being very open about this. They are actively seeking responses from people who use it. Already they've put in some temporary bollards to stop idiots driving down it. So far, they're doing exactly what the Triple-P parenting folk weren't - listening to criticism and adjusting things as they go along, if they can. I encourage all critiques of it (and seemingly by a controversial twitter exchange there are many) to contact the Council. The last thing I want to happen is for the Council to conclude "well, everyone thinks this is rubbish, so we might as well give up". Let's celebrate some small successes where they've happened and we'll get more and it will be better. And long may Edinburgh's experimental spirit continue. If you want to feedback, email at

Which doesn't bring me back to Triple-P, but I want to add this. I'm glad the evaluation of Triple-P was so critical. It's been very popular on the Scottish policy scene along with the Family-Nurse-Partnership (FNP). These are imported policy-initiatives that are all about "early intervention" which in Scotland is very much aligned to reducing the long term "burden" on the government from "failure". It's always troubled me that these initiatives can, and do, easily fall back on cultural explanations for poverty, without setting themselves in the broader context of a very economically unequal country, where the biggest cause of poverty is low income. Also, previous evaluations (as I've mentioned on this blog before) like the first incarnation of the FNP, Glasgow's "Starting Well" programme have been similarly critical. Often it is context that makes these interventions successful, as the core of realist evaluation make clear. Finally, as the evaluations of New Start (the inspiration for Sure Start) showed, and a finding repeated by a controversial recent study by the Institute for Education and Institute for Fiscal Studies on childcare showed, the benefits of these early intervention schemes get eroded fairly quickly by the daily grind of poverty and the children end up back where they started.

I don't want to dismiss these schemes completely out-of-hand. I'm currently reading the excellent Good Times, Bad Times by John Hills (BUY THIS BOOK) and he makes the point that the UK state does some of the greatest redistribution of any state in the world; the trouble is the society going into it is also the most unequal in the world, so the society we get out at the other end is very unequal. This suggests, to me, that there is something in Ed Milliband's "predistribution" - if we can increase skills, productivity and pay in the lower end of the labour market then we are probably going to achieve a lot more than relying on the state to redistribute income and wealth. And programmes such as Triple-P and a well-funded health visitor service (as the FNP should actually be) could be part of a programme of constant, tailored, service delivery to support the most vulnerable and poorest in society. Kind of what I argue for neighbourhood policy.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Defend USS

I teach social policy. I just wrote this blog post for my students on the VLE using the current industrial dispute as a learning point:
Why essay 3 is important in understanding why your essays might not be marked very quickly
At the moment I'm reading this book Good Times, Bad Times by John Hills. It came out last week, so I couldn't add it to the reading list, but it will be pretty much required reading for next year. It's very good indeed and very easy to read. I find reading academic texts hard work. I bought the book from the university booksellers on Saturday and I'm already half way through it which gives an indication of how easy a read it is. Chapters one, two and four would be particularly useful for the Universal Credit essay, four in particular. I've asked the university bookshop to get five in stock and they'll be there early next week in time for your essay, or you could order it from the publisher at a discount by following the above link, or from your favourite non-tax-paying internet bookseller.
The argument the book focuses in on is one that is obscured from public debates on "welfare" (see the current controversy over the way the UK Government is defining "welfare" in its "tax statements" we'll all be getting) is that much of the welfare state actually redistributes resources over time - we don't all earn the same over our life times. All your Beveridge essays on Want focused on how Beveridge wanted to make sure people with blips in their earning potential would not end up being desperately poor. John Hills' analysis unpicks in amazing detail how this is done.
The biggest transfer is between people who are in work and people who have stopped work because they are old - pensioners. They get their income from the state pension, pension tax credit, other benefits, and occupational pensions and individual pensions. At the moment my union - the University College Union - is in dispute with our employers over changes to our pension. You might have read about this. At the moment we have started an assessment boycott, so until the dispute is resolved myself and other academics in the union will not be assessing you - a shorthand for this is a "marking boycott". This has made me realise that next year I must cover pensions in next years' curriculum.
Now, to go back to pensions, they are essentially insurance against getting old. All insurance products share risk among a group of people. Going along that line of pension products, the group that shares the risk steadily shrinks. In the state pension the risk of getting old and not being able to work and therefore needing a pension income is shared among everyone in the country in the past and in the future - an almost infinite number of people. Occupational pensions are often defined benefit schemes - this means we pay into our pension with a guarantee of what income we will get out as a pensioner, which is commonly index-linked; your income will rise with inflation. These share the risk among every single member of the scheme (as employees) in the past and in the future. Therefore the amount employees and employers can pay in might vary over time as the pension scheme has to pay out more money or has increased liabilities (people who might retire in future).
Individual pensions place much more of the risk on individuals. They are defined contribution schemes - you pay in a fixed amount and this in invested for you. The value of your investment can go down as well as up - that is a risk placed on you. When you retire you then have a choice to buy an annuity with your pot which will pay out each year a fixed income that will never change. Actuaries in insurance companies work out how long you are likely to live, compare this to the rest of the people they are paying out pensions too, and work out how much they can afford to pay you without going bust. There is some pooling of risk as with all insurance products, but the risk is much more on the individual than in the state pension or organisational pensions. For example, people retiring right now are finding out that their annuities pay out very little because of the global credit crunch. They did not know the world's economy was going to crash in 2008 when they started paying into their pension 20 years ago. 
What our employers want to do is change our pension to a poorer defined benefit pension for earnings up to c. £40,000 a year (to be technical, care-average-revalued, as opposed to final salary). For earnings over c. £40,000 we will then be forced into a defined contribution scheme. As I described above, this puts the risk on us as individuals, rather than collectively all employee members and employers who are paying into the scheme. Our pensions will be dramatically reduced because of this. However, if we worked for a post-1992 university like Abertay or Edinburgh Napier, we would be in the Teachers' Pension Scheme which is defined benefit. This is while universities are making record incomes from students through the £9,000 tuition fees rUK students have to pay.
Details of the employers' proposals from Universities UK are available here. Details from the University College Union are available here.
We don't take the decision to take industrial action lightly. We all want our students to do their best. But we feel the employers are giving us no choice by forcing a very poor pension on us. We are also concerned that this will affect your education as people will choose to work at post-1992 universities, or elsewhere in the world, where there is a pension scheme. If you are angry that you are not going to be assessed, please contact the students' union and use your routes through to the NUS to put pressure on the employers to negotiate with the UCU. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Futures of social policy

So, teaching at Stirling has so far been very different from at Heriot-Watt. So far most of my teaching has been on an enormous second year module called "Understanding Social Policy" - I'm module coordinator on what is essentially social policy 101. It's good fun, but as it has 367 enrolled students I have to use the tried-and-tested lecture and tutorial method rather than my preferred class activity-based method.

However, it's giving me some great public speaking experience. I've recently discovered that the lecture theatre has radio lapel mics and roving mics, so I've been doing a bit of interaction which has mainly involved me running around the lecture theatre a lot. 

I've also been playing around with the number of slides in lectures following a twitter conversation with some colleagues. For a lecture (well, political rant really) on poverty, I reduced the slides right down to a few graphs the students needed to see, but provided them with a full set of slides on the VLE which were essentially my speech notes. At the end of the semester I'm doing a future, blue-skies, "Future of Social Policy" lecture. For this I'm going PowerPoint less. However, this has meant I've had to produce something for me to speak to, so I don't just ramble on too much for an hour, and also for students who have accessibility challenges. So, I thought I might as well make my essay on Futures of Social Policy available for the rest of you. Enjoy. All errors and omissions my own.