Tag Archives: local-government

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

2009: worst local elections ever?

I wrote a short piece on the local elections on CiF yesterday, which is now live. At the time I was struggling to come up with a proper assessment of how the Lib Dems had done in the local elections so mostly concentrated on the departure of Lord Rennard, but I did write this:

The Lib Dems’ performance in the local elections last week appears to be a perfect example of the perniciousness of the British electoral system. Our overall share of the vote was up but we haemorrhaged councillors because of a swing from Labour to the Conservatives and independents. The Tories certainly performed strongly in this election, but their gains massively outweigh their share of the vote. This ought to make any right-minded individual seethe with a sense of injustice.

At the time I was wondering if the final Lib Dem tally would actually end up positive. Looking at the BBC results service yesterday, every time I refreshed our negative score got a bit smaller. In the end, the BBC have recorded a net -4 result for the party. However, Sky are saying -47.

Why the difference? Well, it seems that the BBC are counting all the new unitaries as entirely new and thus not recording them as gains or losses for any party, while Sky are basing it on notional results. I have to say that Sky are right – these unitaries didn’t appear out of nowhere and in the case of Cornwall they have simply phased out all the district councils. Nonetheless, -47 is an uncomfortable result for the party.

Tim Montgomerie has been jumping up and down on ConservativeHome and the “independent” PoliticsHome to brand this as “the decline of the Liberal Democrats” but let’s have a bit of perspective. Firstly, there is the fact that by all accounts the Lib Dems got more votes on Thursday than in any other set of county council elections. Hardly a decline. Secondly, these losses are almost exclusively limited to the South West – where we had the most to lose. Discount the South West and we made a healthy net gain of seats overall.

Clearly something happened in the South West. Tim puts it all down to the tactical genius of Eric Pickles and the fact that the Tories have finally learned that goose-stepping and doing Hitler salutes (figuratively speaking) isn’t a particularly effective way to win votes. However, we are talking about the South West here and on a day where the county council elections coincided with the European elections. The South West is notoriously eurosceptic and this was presumably a major factor as well. And in Cornwall in particular there is a lot of strong feeling about the creation of the unitary – this almost certainly hurt us.

Should the party have diverted more funds to battling the Tories and UKIP in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset? I’m sure a lot of people in the area think so and it might have stopped Tim from being able to crow today, but long term it would have been foolish. But it might also have simply been a collossal waste of money. You can’t simply throw money around and employ a bag of tricks and win elections. One would have thought that a Conservative, of all people, would understand that.

Hopefully we’ll have some decent county-by-county analysis of these results to chew over soon. My guess is that it will throw up some appalling examples of undemocratic results. Labour have been wiped out in many parts of the country, but they still got more than 1-in-5 votes. The Tory share of the vote is not particularly high and has plunged compared to last year. Their success nationwide is almost entirely down to the collapse of the Labour vote.

I’m sure a lot of Tories reading this will retort that all this is just sour grapes, but what is the point of an election if it doesn’t reflect public opinion? What’s worse, it creates a political vacuum in places through which extremists rush through (Hugh Muir seems to absolve the Lib Dems of this in his article today – he shouldn’t. The English Democrats’ victory in Doncaster yesterday for instance was helped by the local Lib Dems’ decision not to field a candidate).

These results ought to be a wakeup call. Sadly, the media has now switched all its attention back on Labour infighting.

Why the Sustainable Communities Act matters

Okay, work hat semi-on again. Today is a big day as it is when the government formally invites local authorities to take part in the process outlined in the Sustainable Communities Act. The LGA are holding a conference today on the subject and 55 organisations have written to every council leader and chief executive in England urging them to opt-in to the process. Over on Lib Dem Voice, Seth Thevoz is excited. I am too.

The SCA is unique as legislation goes. It’s expected effects are nuanced and subtle. As a result it is prone to misunderstanding. So let’s start by saying what it is not: it is not a panacea. Nor will it directly result in a reversal of fifty years plus of state centralisation. Nor will it force, in a simplistic way, national government to devolve powers that local authorities request.

What it does instead is create a new form of dialogue, between council and community and between local and national government. The other thing it most definitely is not is consultation, in the commonly understood sense of the word whereby government asks for views but is then free to do whatever it likes. When local authorities draw up their own local sustainability plans, they will have to try to reach agreement with the wider community. When national government makes its formal response to the various plans and requests for new powers by local authorities, it will not be able to simply cherry pick but must try to reach agreement with the “selector” (specifically the Local Government Association). If that all sounds like empty rhetoric to you, it most certainly did not sound like empty rhetoric to the civil servants during the scrutiny of the bill, who attempted at every stage to have that very specific language removed.

The overall effect is an entirely new power dynamic, with local government, national government and the wider community interacting in a much more horizontal way. Yes, that means national government can no longer treat local government so glibly. But the reverse is equally true. After today, local government will no longer be able to complain that national government doesn’t let them do anything and won’t listen without at least exhausting the SCA process first.

Take post offices as an example. For years, the debate has essentially been a call for national government to step in an stop the shrinking of the network. Under the SCA, the debate will not be about what national government could or should be doing but what local government needs to do and what powers it needs to do it. We’ve already seen examples in places like Essex where the County Council is taking over post offices in strategic locations. But if the only way to fund that service is through council tax, it is likely to come to a shuddering halt before too long. Are there not other ways we might be able to pay for it though?

There are several other examples of the sorts of things local authorities might request as part of the process on the Unlock Democracy website. National government is likely to have big problems with a number of the proposals that come out of the process, but not with all of them. The important thing is though, if it is going to block any proposals, it will need to have strong reasons for doing so. It won’t be able to dismiss any idea out of hand.

The result will no doubt be a lot of rows. But they will be rows that would otherwise not even have started. And the nature of politics is that rows usually end up leading to compromises and creative solutions.

There are two things that I hope people end up using the Act to highlight. The first one is fiscal autonomy. In short, councils don’t have it, and need it if they are to take on significant new responsibilities. I hope this is a point that every single local authority uses the process to highlight the need and to propose solutions to it. And yes, you could theoretically use the Act to call for a certain proportion of income tax to be given directly and varied by local councils.

The second one is electoral reform. Last year’s councillors commission already proposed allowing councils the freedom to experiment with different electoral systems. Most of the arguments used against electoral reform in the House of Commons, regardless of their relative merits, simply don’t apply to local councils. Councillors already have multi-member constituencies. No Overall Control is a daily reality for a significant number of councils, and they function perfectly well. And unlikey Westminster elections, where all the major parties contest all the seats, at a local government level whole swathes of councillors are elected unopposed each year.

We don’t want a return to 1980s politics, with socialist putsches running ideologically-driven councils entirely at odds with the views of the majority of the people they are supposed to serve. At the other end of the scale, the spectre of rightwing hegemonies using the undemocratic electoral system to guarantee themselves permanent power in parish councils is equally disgraceful. The best guarantee against both of these problems is pluralist politics. We don’t need it imposed top-down; we merely need a system whereby it can be requested bottom-up. The current government already allows people to do that when it comes to introducing elected mayors (although they don’t allow it when it comes to abolishing elected mayors, natch), so it has no principled reason for not allowing it here.