Monday, 27 April 2015

I attended a community action event

Some organisations I'm involved with in various ways, primarily through research (namely: WHALE Arts, Prospect Community Housing Association and SCORE Scotland, along with the City of Edinburgh Council) organised a community action event in Wester Hailes on Saturday and I went along. It used Open Space - a technique I'd never seen before, but that I was very impressed by. Here are my random thoughts on the event in no particular order.

It was diverse! As I said to many people on the day, it was the most ethnically diverse room I've been in since I moved to Scotland. The 2011 census showed that only four per cent of Scotland's population is from a Black Minority Ethnic background (BME), which means most events in Scotland are as white a ream of photocopier paper. Also, SCORE brought along their youth club, so it was diverse in ages too.

A lot of issues that really matter to people were discussed: the kids complained about being bullied on buses or of being made to carry out religious worship that was not part of their faith; BME people spoke about racial harassment and intimidation; people spoke about massive delays in getting an appointment at the GP; people spoke about cyclist/pedestrian/motor vehicle conflict; people spoke about dog shit; they spoke about dog shit some more; they also spoke about youth anti-social behaviour.

Cultural differences: the cultural differences also became apparent, in two key ways. Firstly, as Pinkster and Droogleever found in the Netherlands, there were different cultural expectations of parenting among new-migrant communities (often from a Muslim or Evangelical Christian background) and the white working class community that was leading to tensions around youth anti-social behaviour. What was seen as "kids being kids" by some people was seen as appalling behaviour and disobedience by others. 

Also, the new migrants were clearly quite committed to the neighbourhood and wanted to make a difference by doing things. However, a lot of the longer-term activists had seen the same issues repeatedly over 30-40 years, seen many solutions thrown at them and were a bit world weary: "we've talked about this all before and nothing's been done" was a common refrain. I'll be writing a journal article on this it was such an interesting dynamic.

People found their own solutions: a brilliant example of this was a group that spoke about what could be done with a particularly bad local problem around legal highs. They agreed three actions: to work more closely with Police Scotland and the Council (fair enough) but also to organise a petition to give to the local shop telling them to stop selling legal highs; and a wee lad was also going to make some posters about the dangers of legal highs. This was asset-based community development working very well.

Evidence: related to my previous very sweary post, in just about every bit of discussion, or problem raised, I could put my fingers on a piece of academic, or good quality, evidence that would either illuminate the problem or provide a very practical solution. At the end of the day when the agenda was turned into a set of action points, I could have gone down the list and said "this is what the evidence says, this is what you should spend your resources on to do something about this". There is a crying need for universities and the academics in them to be providing this sort of knowledge for local communities and local authorities, not just using them as research objects. 

I tried to keep my input to a minimum as I don't live in Wester Hailes, but I suggested that there should be more, very cheap, experimental interventions run in the neighborhood to try and make some of the little quality of life changes that are required. You're not going to cure poverty, but you might make your immediate neighbourhood a wee bit better. The whole Open Space event could easily be joined up with a community budgeting initiative like £eith Decides

And, in the spirit of my last blog post (warning, contains copious swearing) I also put my money where my mouth was yesterday and spent a tenner on some random bits and bobs and dabbled in some guerrilla gardening in my local park, including doing a wee litter pick. I might do some guerrilla maintenance next - repainting the play equipment.

What really impressed me about Open Space was its openness. It is specifically designed to be very agenda-less and open up debate and discussion and move people towards practical solutions to problems very quickly. It was far better than anything involving agendas and Post-It notes I'd been to before. Sadly, very few people from local public services were there - three people in total. No local teachers or neighbourhood workers. If the City of Edinburgh Council is going to have 21st Century Public Servants(PDF) then they need to be working with communities at events such as this.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The death of the university

I wanted to do an erudite exposition on the nature of the contemporary university. Instead I ranted and swore. 

OH FFS, SHUT THE ACTUAL FUCK UP. Expecting “good teaching and learning” is NOT the commercialisation of the university – it’s being accountable as producers to what service users want. It’s what you’ve all been telling EVERY SINGLE OTHER PUBLIC SERVICE TO DO FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS. When you do an irate blog post, or snarky journal articles about other public servants not listening to service users (and you), you’re expecting from them exactly what you’re not willing to provide yourself. And doing a “Pathways to Impact Statement” does not make you a fucking “neoliberal slave”, it means that the government can actually just demonstrate, in a really poor way, that it might actually get some value for money from its research funding, rather than paying you to piss around in your office all day doing fuck-all. If you expect it from the person on the other end of the phone in the council, you should expect it yourself. Oh, and I’m terribly sorry that you find teaching disabled working class students, or students with English as a second language, slightly more challenging than the middle-class kids from comprehensive schools (who are just like you). Maybe it’s because YOU’VE NOT BOTHERED MAKING THE ACADEMY ACCESSIBLE TO THEM FOR THE PAST 1200 YEARS. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Is the right-to-buy a bad thing?

The housing world is frothing with vituperative arguments - and quite rightly so - at the launch of the Conservative Party manifesto today and the pledge to extend the right-to-buy to housing association homes. Now, we all know that the original right-to-buy was a Bad Thing. I don't disagree with this assessment that wildly: it reduced the supply of affordable rented homes; it led to the residualisation of social housing as a tenure of last resort; and it led to spatial segregation as the best housing was bought at substantial discount and was now out-of-reach of many lower income households. Finally, and for me most problematically, it left local authorities with an enormous burden of historic debt and no income stream to pay it off. I'm on the board of a housing association with properties with the preserved right-to-buy and I see the impact of this once-in-a-while when one of these properties is purchased and our balance sheet takes a small hit. The mess that local authority housing revenue accounts were left in by the right-to-buy doesn't bear thinking about.

But, was the right-to-buy a Bad Thing in its entirety? I'd say we need some caution and nuance here - and we can end up with a much more radical policy. First of all, to be clear, the right-to-buy was not an invention of the Thatcher government. Local authorities since the 1950s had been building homes for purchase. In Tucker's cracking book Honourable Estates he gives the example of local authorities where you knew the Conservatives, or "Progressives" had won the local election because the "To Let" signs on the shiny new homes they'd built were replaced by "For Sale" signs. My uncle and aunt bought such a property, built by the LCC with a cheap mortgage through the Public Works Loan Board, in Harold Wood in Essex in the 1960s. Further, I can't put my finger on a source for this just right now, but as I understand it the right-to-buy in this format was extended in the 1970s. But the key here is an implementation detail - under these schemes the debt that the local authority had incurred through the construction was paid off by the purchaser. The discounts that have left local authorities strapped for cash since 1981 were not in place.

Further, in my research, and I've spoken to others who have found the same, in deprived neighbourhoods the right-to-buy is actually quite important for long-term residents in two ways. Firstly, it means that if their family wish to remain close by, but become homeowners, they can purchase property, often resold RTB properties. Secondly, for many long-term, committed residents people exercising the RTB is a very positive symbol - it means that their neighbourhood is now good enough that people are willing to invest a substantial amount of their money in property. Of course, the stigma towards such neighbourhoods should not be there in the first place and is exacerbated by the RTB and associated residualisation, but this is where we are and I cannot discount the evidence from the interviewees in my research. Also, that the RTB is being scrapped in Scotland has led to a surge in people taking advantage of it does suggest it's still a popular policy with individual tenants.

So, if we dare to say the RTB is not necessarily a Bad Thing what do we do about it? Well, from a more radical but pragmatic standpoint, I'd say we should do two things: firstly, the discount should be properly calculated as that bit of debt remaining, once maintenance costs have been factored in through depreciation, that the housing authority still has. This might actually mean the RTB is removed from some properties as this is incalculable. Secondly, if individuals can have the right to take property of one institution, then they should have the right to take it off all institutions - that is the RTB should be extended to the tenants in all private property. As the infamous (on twitter) loveandgarbage pointed out, the only person to do this was a (very) Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland in 1997.

This, for me, is the more radical way to deal with the RTB and would also open up new, exciting forms of property ownership in a collective way if tenants in blocks of flats could collectively exercise the RTB. But, of course, as Alex Marsh has excellently exposed, the Conservative policy for the RTB is not thought-free. It is radical, but it is radical in terms of an attack on the neediest in society. It is a radical attack on the state and the idea that some people might be dependent on others for help. It is not a radical way to change housing policy or delivering new social housing. But then, that is also why the Conservatives are proposing to change inheritance tax making wealth even more poorly taxed in the UK. But that's a whole other blog post.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Contemporary coproduction

Back in March - 18 March to be precise - thank you very much to the generous support of my School, my research group, Governance, Participation and Inclusion, hosted a seminar on coproduction. The seminar was a short full-day and, recognising that coproduction is very much the "buzzword" of the moment in public service reform, it aimed to take a critical stance towards exploring coproduction. I hoped to record the presentations and make them available online, but the tech didn't work on the day, so I've pulled together this, and Stuart Muirhead of IRISS has also done this excellent summary for their blog.

The day started off with an excellent presentation by Catherine Needham of the University of Birmingham, who discussed how we might evaluate coproduction (slides here [pdf]), recognising that traditional "gold standard" methods of evaluation (RCTs etc.) might be beyond the reach of small coproduced activities and do not fit into the ethos of coproduction. Tony Bovaird then followed with his thoughts on coproduction from extensive experience of public service transformation (slides here). We then had three short presentations on the theory of coproduction (Richard Simmons, University of Stirling), the policy of coproduction (Julie Christie, University of Stirling) and lastly Julia Fitzpatrick from Horizon Housing Association discussing the practice of coproduction.

After lunch we took our coffee into a Conversation cafe. Stuart put his notes on his blog post above, three other scribes also kindly sent me their notes after the event - available as pdfs here, here and here.

After this we broke into different activities. I joined a fascinating session on coproducing professional learning led by Unity, the group that the School of Applied Social Science at Stirling leads to bring in service-user experience to improve learning in social work. Other people played with Lego (see the photo on Stuart's blog post). Katherine Phipps, University of Stirling, also led a group coproducing some knitting (including teaching a few people how to knit) in response to Brooks Newmark's comment when he was Minister for Civil Society  "the important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others". This was the end result:

I got in a bit of trouble for a foul-mouthed rant in the middle of the seminar when I decried the poor engagement of professionals in coproduction and the lack of realisation of what it really means to renegotiate one's professional role when coproducing something. Picking up on this, the theme of the event was to move the seminar itself towards coproduction, and away from the broadcast-receive model of academic practice as the day went out. Interestingly, in the feedback I got back after the event this is the bit of the day that the participants felt was least useful. And with that thought I shall leave you. 

And there's a few more photos taken by my colleague Vikki McCall in this Flickr album.

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)