Archive for the 'public policy' Category

Transatlantic lessons for middle Britain

Sophia Parker

Sophia Parker

This post originally appeared on the Bright Blue blog on 13 March 2013.

Sophia Parker is an Associate at the Resolution Foundation, having previously been the Director of Policy and Research. She is the editor of The squeezed middle published in January 2013.

The squeezed middle: the pressure on ordinary workers in America and Britain is a collection of essays from America’s leading thinkers in the field of living standards to understand what lessons, if any, we might draw from the US experience.

You may well wonder what we can take from a country where the crisis in living standards is so great that it’s not an exaggeration to talk of America’s ‘lost generation’. Productivity has risen threefold since 1970 but barely a dollar from this buoyant economy has made its way into the average person’s pay packet. Even the recent return to moderate growth in the US has not eased the challenges most families are facing.

The US is an outlier in the sense that the historic link between pay and productivity was brutally severed forty years ago – thankfully the UK does not exactly mirror this glum picture.

However Resolution Foundation analysis highlights a deeply worrying development: since the early 2000s, wages and household income have flatlined for British low and middle income families, and since the recession they have in fact declined. This suggests that despite important differences, at a fundamental level the US and the UK share a problem: while our nations have got richer, low and middle income households have suffered a stagnation and even decline in living standards.

There are other alarm bells that should be ringing too: as in the US, we have seen inequality rise sharply in recent years. Living costs continue to rise faster than inflation, significantly reducing the spending power of low and middle income households. Furthermore, from tax credits to worker rights, many of the policies that have historically protected Britain from looking more like the US are either under threat or being watered down.

But let’s not start wringing our hands just yet. While acknowledging the impact of globalization, technological change and immigration, the contributors to the book are compelling on the crucial role of policy and politics in shaping economic realities.

They underline the most important lesson that we can take from the US experience: decline and stagnation of the scale seen in the US is not inevitable. We do in fact have a choice as to whether we want to reverse the declining living standards of low and middle income households. Policy decisions and political priorities can augment or mitigate economic trends, and determine who gains most from any future growth we might enjoy.

So the question now is whether any of the major parties are able to find a language and set of policy priorities that make living standards an organizing political idea. There are some welcome signs that the new generation of Conservatives recognize the significance of the issues. But there aren’t many quick wins here. Reflecting on the American experience, the book’s contributors set out a challenging set of issues where action is needed, including:

  • A focus on who benefits from growth, as well as on achieving growth in the first place.
  • A focus on improving market wages, as well as on ensuring taxes and transfers are actively supporting working families.
  • A focus on broadening employment and in-work supports such as childcare, as well as on the quality of jobs.

President Obama declared that a chart showing the declining living standards of America’s middle class was his ‘North Star’ in his re-election campaign last year. Will any political leader here do the same? If not, then we risk treading the path that the US has already gone down – with disastrous consequences for the third of our working age population who live in low and middle income households.

The squeezed middle is available to buy with 20% discount at

Is the last chance saloon still open?

Malcolm Dean

Malcolm Dean

Exclusive: the first verdict on the Leveson Inquiry from the Guardian‘s Malcolm Dean

‘So, finally the bogeyman has arrived. A regulated press! Government intervention! Stalinism! Precious liberties won through 300 years of courage and eloquence to be forfeited by a panic about phone hacking!’ Harry Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times, summed up Fleet Street’s response well this morning (30th November) in the Guardian. Written before he even saw today’s edition, it could not have been more accurate. The Sun’s editorial condemned Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for allowing ‘state officials to walk into papers like the Sun and censor stories.’ The Mail‘s headline declared ‘Cameron’s stand for freedom – defiant PM says he won’t back key proposal’. A Telegraph headline was equally upbeat and panegyric: ‘Unexpected decision makes PM a leader in defence of liberty’.

No doubt there were big smiles in Downing Street this morning from such widespread media endorsements. Undoubtedly that was one reason for his veto. Another was the need to pacify his rebellious right wing backbenchers.  So much for Cameron’s pledges that he would support Leveson so long as it had the support of victims and there was nothing ‘bonkers’ in it. His veto broke both his own tests. Add two more to his 37 u-turns. His purported reason, given in Parliament yesterday, was the Leveson plan would cross ‘the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law’. As one Lib Dem MP noted, he had his waterways wrong: ‘not a Rubicon, barely a brook’.

Leveson rightly insists that he has not produced a statutory system, but an independent system given statutory backing. Leaning over backwards to get the media barons on side, he has left the media to produce a replacement of the hapless Press Complaints Commission. True, he is requiring a rigorous regulator with investigatory powers and severe sanctions, not just a complaints office. But the media had already accepted that. What they have not yet conceded, but which he rightly insists on, is that the industry should not be involved in the appointment of its chair and the board, which should have no serving editor on it, although an ex editor and retired publisher could be. Why legislation was needed was his bundle of incentives to encourage the news groups to join: an arbitration service providing a fair, quick and inexpensive avenue for victims to seek settlements, which would only be open to news groups who sign up. Non-media members would be left to the courts, subject to exemplary damages for not signing up and unable to claim their legal costs even if they won.

The idea that politicians are eager to rein-in the media is a myth. History documents not six but seven reports in the last 63 years demonstrating their reluctance: three royal commissions (1949, 1962, 1977), Younger (1969), Robertson (1983), along with two from Calcutt (1990 and 1993) all producing proposals which governments declined to take up. Stephen Dorrell, media minister in 1993, explained to Leveson why the Conservative government declined to take up Calcutt’s ‘last chance saloon’: the depth of opposition within the media. No change there.

There is no doubt about the public’s support: 82 per cent opposed a self-regulated system under the industry’s control; 79 per cent supported Leveson’s idea of an independent system underpinned by law in a YouGov/Media Standards Trust poll last week. All solicitors and judges operate under a similar system. Finland passed a law in 2003, which provides people with a statutory right of reply and news groups with a duty to correct – yet in eight out of the last ten years the country has come top in the World Press Freedom Index.

Leveson’s Inquiry, eight months of hearings, 650 witnesses, generating 6,000 pages of evidence did a brilliant job of exposing the depth of the media’s shortcomings – both criminal and the seven non-criminal sins listed in Democracy under attack: Why the media distort policy and politics: distortions, dumbed down content, more interested in politics than policy, hunting in packs, being too adversarial, too readily duped, too negative. Yesterday’s four volume, 2,000-word report will make this sorry saga more readily available. It’s not without its own shortcomings: silence on ownership; pretty feeble on the failures of the police investigations; even more feeble on Hutton’s closeness to Murdoch. Not even an easy read with cumbersome sub clauses sprayed everywhere, but undoubtedly on the right line in its proposals.

What happens now? Currently with both Labour and Lib Dems backing Leveson, plus up to 70 Conservative MPs who earlier endorsed statutory support, there is a Commons majority in favour of Leveson. The Government has agreed to produce a draft bill. It believes it will demonstrate the complexities. Meanwhile, there is still no consensus among editors on how independent of the industry the new body should be. Leveson is the eighth report since 1949. Currently it looks as though we’ll need a ninth. Shameful.

Malcolm Dean, is former Associate Editor of the Guardian and founder of Society Guardian. He is also author of Democracy under attack: Why the media distort policy and politics, due out in paperback in March 2013 with new forewords by Professor David R. Mayhew and Howard Glennerster and updated conclusions.

The Paralympic Legacy – A New Dawn or a False Dawn for Disabled People?

The Paralympics is currently taking place in the UK against a backdrop of heavy cuts to disability benefits. George Osborne was booed when he attended a medal ceremony, as was Theresa May, and the sponsorship of Atos (who carry out the controversial tests to determine whether claimants of incapacity benefit are “fit to work”) has caused controversy and protest. Here, Alan Roulstone, co-author of Understanding Disability Policy, examines the 2012 Paralympic legacy and whether it could be a false dawn for disabled people:

Alan Roulstone

There has been much talk ahead of and during the London Paralympics 2012 of the legacy of the Paralympics in changing attitudes towards disabled people. The British Prime Minister captured these sentiments of hope at the games’ opening ceremony noting the promise for: “Eyes are being opened, attitudes hopefully shifted”. This and many similar comments by social leaders are suggesting a longer term shift in attitudes towards disabled people engendered by the successes of disabled athletes.

Such change would of course be very welcome indeed, especially during a period of recession when disabled people are struggling to retain or gain paid work. Indeed, even the most ambivalent observer could not deny the power and social exuberance at the sight of very fit and talented disabled athletes attaining the very pinnacle of sporting achievement. That said, the assertion that a wider and lasting legacy may be seen in attitudes and treatments of disabled people has to be viewed with real caution.

Firstly, there is no evidence at all that the treatment of disabled people in countries hosting Paralympic games has improved the lot for disabled people more generally. There is little evidence that the Sydney or Beijing Paralympics have discernibly improved disabled people’s lives. China continues to be coy about the use and extent of institutions for many even young disabled people. Australia is busy implementing a Basics card for welfare recipients, many of whom are disabled, which will ensure that spending can be monitored and that swathes of the Australian population will be denied access to the parallel cash economy. This, it is feared, will enshrine a form of social apartheid where types of spend will be associated with welfare status, the effects of which will be potentially deeply stigmatising.

A number of things are being muddled, it can be argued, in the assertion that many disabled people can be helped by the Paralympics being staged in London. The first relates to disability diversity. Although the different events and challenges see hugely diverse categorisations being applied -amputee, double amputee, muscle weakness, sight limitations – the common denominator here is that of elite trained, fit, largely young individuals with physical impairments. These are not simply athletes, but elite athletes who have made a career in a given sport. No one denies the sheer effort and determination in achieving such levels in sport. Many of those however facing the worst attitudes and treatment barriers are people who are unwell, may have flare-up conditions ( such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell disease) which makes even limited physical activity difficult.

There is of course a risk that only those disabled people who are seen to overcome their predicament will be treated as heros and well regarded;  or to use a high-jump metaphor, that the bar of social expectation will be set even higher. This mirrors what happened when stories of austistic savants began to hit the public consciousness in the 1980s and a number of my friends and colleagues with autism/Aspergers syndrome were asked what it was they could do that was special. Sometimes, a little knowledge is of course a dangerous thing.

The reality for many disabled people is that, whilst some can work, given the opportunity, and many can contribute to a range of important social activities, they may face major social, environmental  and attitude barriers in everyday life. They are some distance from the heroic image of a medal winner mounting a podium. However as a disability researcher and policy writer it has long been my view that disabled people are heroic in contending with the daily obstacles of the built environment, the shifting of the ‘welfare category’ in a way that severely disadvantages former welfare recipients.

The most difficult aspect of the Paralympics for many disabled people has been the bizarre juxtaposition of seeing great sporting achievements (rightly) being applauded and poster girl/boy images of photogenic disabled people alongside arguably the most aggressing and top-down reform of welfare since the Poor Law. This is not simply a reform of welfare along the lines of the Fowler reforms of the 1980s, this is a fundamental reassertion of who counts as disabled. Disabled people once accredited by medical and DWP/DSS authorities as ‘disabled for life’ risk being told they are  no longer ‘that disabled’ and will be reviewed periodically or worse still have been taken off Disability Living Allowance. The same mindset is already being applied to Employment Support Allowance recipients/applicants and there are many horror stories as to who is being told they are ‘fit for work’, including people with terminal cancer and brain tumours.

Disabled people are diverse, it goes without saying. The binary worldview that there are heroes and villains cannot justly be applied to disability. Disability is complex – people may emphasise their challenges to get the welfare support to which they are entitled, but will of necessity have to emphasise what they can do when applying for paid work – this says more about contemporary society than it does about disabled people. The sooner sick and disabled people are seen as contending with different barriers – from hurdles, high jumps, to medical and welfare systems – the better. This type of re-evaluation would be a truly Olympic change to policy thinking.

Alan Roulstone is Professor of Applied Social Sciences (Disability Policy) at Northumbria University and Honorary Professor at Swansea University, UK.

Understanding disability policy by Alan Roulstone and Simon Prideaux is available for only £15.00 (RRP £21.99) during September from our website.  

What is the impact of evaluation research on public policy?

Evaluation for the real world book imageEvaluation research findings should be a key-element of the policy-making process, yet in reality they are often disregarded. In this blog post, Colin Palfrey, one of the authors of Evaluation for the real world, looks at the history and impact of evaluation:

“The formal evaluation of public services has a history of little more than 50 years. Discovering what impact various social policies, programmes and projects have had on the intended beneficiaries makes political and economic sense. Why, one might ask, has evaluation had such a relatively limited pedigree?

Part of the explanation could perhaps be explained by the response from several medical practitioners in the 1970s and 1980s who considered the movement towards evidence-based medicine as an unwarranted assault on their professional wisdom and integrity.

Nevertheless, in spite of initial opposition from some quarters, evidence-based medicine, with its emphasis on the randomised controlled trial as the primary, if not the sole method of producing cogent evidence, became widely accepted as the ‘gold standard’ on which to base professional practice.

Although academic articles and books began appearing in some numbers in the USA during the 1960s, there was little academic or political interest in formal evaluation in the UK until two decades later. It would appear that in the UK, for example, the formulation of a policy, particularly when enshrined in legislation, was deemed sufficient to ensure its full implementation and once implemented to have the intended effect.

However, it is highly probable that the movement towards evidence-based medicine impinged on the world of civil servants and politicians. Certainly with the Thatcher government in the 1980s questioning the value of the public sector in terms of its efficiency, major projects and initiatives – notably the National Health Service – came under close scrutiny. Government spending on public sector services now had to prove its cost-effectiveness.

In the UK this concern with efficiency and cost-effectiveness spawned a number of government documents directed at policy advisers. Politicians now needed to know ‘what works’ and at what cost. This emerging culture of evidence-based policy prompts the question of how evaluation research commissioned by governments influenced or even shaped central policy.

It is on this question that our book focuses. Given the plethora of learned articles and books on the subject of evaluation over the past 50 years or so, what evidence is there that evaluation research in its many manifestations – commissioned project evaluation, policy evaluation, theory-driven evaluation – has had an impact on public policy at central and more local levels. In short, how cost-effective has evaluation research been?

The book looks at the possible reasons why academics, in particular, appear somewhat sceptical, if not despondent about the outcome of their research-based findings. Those who make decisions about allocating taxpayers’ money to a range of policies and their embodiment in programmes and projects, are not bound by any contractual arrangements to act on the results of evaluation research  – whether this has been designed and delivered by academics or by research-oriented private companies. .

We contend that the exploration of the impact of evaluation research on public policy is long overdue.”

Evaluation for the real world: the impact of evidence in policy making, by Colin Palfrey, Paul Thomas and Ceri Phillips was published on 13 June 2012 by The Policy Press. You can order a copy at 20% discount here.

Hedgehogs, Foxes and Sociologists*

Dr. Katherine Smith                        Dr. Nasar Meer


Dr. Nasar Meer and Dr. Katherine Smith write:

The late Isaiah Berlin once distinguished between two types of political animal: the first was a prickly hedgehog (who views the world through the lens of a single defining idea), and the other a cunning fox (for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea).  Sociologists have traditionally aspired to be neither. Motivated less by ‘normative’ positions and arguments, it is with some bemusement that many of us have encountered Aditya Chakrabortty’s recent admonishments.

Like Bill Jordan (see previous blog post), we agree that the study of economics has been found wanting, and that Chakrabortty certainly catches something of a deeper conversation amongst academics, with the important proviso that Chakrabortty’s piece on occasion conflates those who study markets with those who feverishly endorse them. True, economics has in places been stripped of its critical and holist features, but there are political economists who continue, often persuasively, to take a more direct route (see for example David Harvey’s RSA lecture on the financial crisis). We do not wish to intrude on private grief however and so will leave economists to speak for themselves and focus instead on those who have disappointed Chakrabortty most.

A prevailing strand of sociological inquiry in Britain has long sought to make our social world more knowable through a methodology of verstehen; a term employed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).  While this can incorporate quantitative and comparative perspectives, Weber’s task was to ‘empathetically understand’ the ways in which the actions of people and groups in society are inscribed with ‘meaning’.  Through the study of this meaning, he maintained, we could observe intentional or unintentional social outcomes, as shown in his study of early capitalism in Northern Europe, and specifically the role of a Calvinist-Protestant work ethic in encouraging capital accumulation and investment.

Much has changed in sociology, and we have past many ‘post-’s, but these approaches remain familiar to students and teachers of the discipline whose research spans the seemingly banal to the most contested; the most intimate to the most innocuous topics. That is to say that there is perhaps a consensus that whatever else sociological inquiry resembles, it must necessarily be motivated by a concern with something greater than political debate. It is here that Chakrabortty’s lament that a ‘Focauladian lens’ or studying ‘the holistic massage industry’ is a distraction from what really matters comes up short; not least because he repeats the error he is critiquing by giving primacy to all that is seemingly ‘economic’. Another way of putting this is to say that economics is not the only sphere of the social world and, to reverse the problem, it is short-sighted to uncouple economics from the study of culture, gender, ethnicity, and so forth, and so miss the intersectionalities of social phenomena.

This means it is not for sociologists to ‘defeat’ economists but to engage in sociologically valid inquiry that incorporates more than economics.  This does not mean ignoring the economic crisis rather to take it in the round. Hence the core theme of the 2010 British Sociological Conference (BSA) was ‘Inequalities and Social Justice’, while ‘Sociology in the Age of Austerity’ was the core theme for our 2012 meeting. Each of these showcased important arguments that are yet to find their way into press, partly because the rigours of peer-review can entail a lag of around eighteen months between article submission and publication (we have elsewhere discussed what the implications of increased auditing of scholarship might entail)  Nonetheless, there is a diverse range of sociological scholarship on the economic crisis that offers more than the sum of its parts and so deals with the big questions too

In many ways Chakrabortty’s concern strikes at the heart of what has been debated widely – indeed on the pages of the journals he says ignore the economic crisis – as Public Sociology.  An important point here is that there is more than one ‘public’.  So when sociologists engage in the mass media, as is easily observed in the mediatised letters and campaigns against the NHS and Social Care Bill or the hike in tuition fees, Michael Gove’s ‘free’ schools, or the Government’s targeting of the most vulnerable, this is just one kind of public.  Sociologists also engage with other ‘publics’, many of which may be less visible to journalists such as local communities, prisons, virtual communities, and students (of various kinds, both inside and outside universities), as well as conventional academic publics. These too are sociological terrains of political economy.

It may be easy for Chakrabortty to dismiss a few (purposively selected) niche research topics as irrelevant but it is equally important to ensure that those with a public voice do not presume to know what is, and what is not, of interest to different kinds of publics. In the context of the economic crisis and its fall out, debates that take place between broadsheet commentators, academics and policymakers are just one kind of conversation (and, if we are honest, a rather elite and limited kind).

*Dr. Nasar Meer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Northumbria University, and author of The impact of European Equality Directives upon British Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Policy & Politics, 38(2). Dr. Katherine Smith is a Lecturer in the Global Public Health Unit at Edinburgh University

Collaboration in public policy and practice

Paul Williams, author of the recently published Collaboration in public policy and practice, explains the importance of individual actors to collaborative working and to the future of public services:

“Forms of intra and inter-sectoral collaboration have steadily grown in popularity as a means of designing and delivering public services. They are driven by the prospect of securing a more efficient use of resources, of tackling complex and wicked issues, and as a way of involving citizens and communities. In the current age of austerity, it is even more important for people and agencies to work together, to share resources, knowledge and expertise and develop new and innovative solutions within reduced budgets. However, the experience of collaborative working is highly problematic because of differences in aims, accountabilities, professional perspectives, performance management frameworks and cultures – and despite much activity and repeated attempts to promote this form of working through legislation, structural re-organizations and financial incentives – success on the ground is far from impressive.

It may be that the focus on the structural determinants and factors of collaboration is misplaced and that the effectiveness of this form of governance rests with actors – practitioners, managers, leaders and dedicated staff – that are committed to working in a collaborative and networked fashion, forging relationships with colleagues in other sectors, agencies and professions, to achieve shared purposes. This cadre of public actors can be referred to as the boundary spanners because their focus is on working across conventional boundaries of organization, profession and sector to tackle complex and interdependent problems such as health inequalities, poverty and crime.

Critically, boundary spanners need to possess a particular set of skills and competencies to be effective in this type of environment:
• interpersonal skills to develop and sustain relationships based on trust and reciprocity;
• networking skills to forge constituencies of interest and enhance levels of communication;
• entrepreneurial abilities to foster innovation and creativity;
• and co-ordination skills to ensure the smooth running and servicing of collaborative programmes.

Boundary spanners face a range of tensions in their everyday practice, including managing and working across multiple forms of governance – hierarchical and networked; coping with the dilemmas of different accountabilities; and managing the boundaries between personal and professional relationships. Despite these, boundary spanners have an important role to play in the future of public services; training and development programmes need to better reflect their needs, and more research is necessary to understand their role in different collaborative contexts and conditions.”

Paul Williams is the author of Collaboration in public policy and practice: Perspectives on boundary spanners published by Policy Press. You can order your copy at 20% discount here.

Police leaders and resignations

In 2008, Sir Ian Blair, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, resigned and there was a consequent sigh of relief throughout policing. He had clung to office for so long that his tenacity had become an embarrassment and that had threatened the public’s often fragile respect for the police. When Sir Paul Stephenson, Blair’s successor, resigned on Sunday 17 July, citing the ‘distraction’ which criticism of him would cause the Metropolitan Police, there was, by contrast, considerable dismay and regret. Actually, his action is typical of the man; his honesty and strong sense of public probity would not have allowed him to continue if he felt that he had himself become the story.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), known in policing as “the twenty/twenty hindsight brigade”, is investigating allegations against the former Commissioner, so it’s probably premature to come to any conclusions about the ethics of the relationship between police leaders and senior editorial staff at The News of the World, as it also may be about the wider question of newspapers paying police officers for information. Now Assistant Commissioner John Yates has also resigned (18th July), citing similar reasons to Sir Paul’s for his departure, after a week of heavy pressure and publicity. Two former chief officers at the Met, Andy Hayman and Peter Clarke, are also in the frame for the IPCC to look at.

This all seems to lend substance to media claims that policing is in crisis and that the police are led by inept, malign or naïve people. But there are some things we would do well to bear in mind: first, the Met is not the police. It likes to think it is sometimes, because it has some national roles, but policing is more than what happens in London. The second point is that policing goes on, whoever is at the top. Someone will step in and mind the shop, while the police go about their daily, routine, necessary and unglamorous tasks. The third point to make is that none of the allegations against any of the police leaders is yet proved and the cloud of speculation may be as evanescent as mist before sunrise.

The final point is this: when I did my research a year or so ago on chief police officers, what came across most strongly to me was that people at the top of policing cared very much about the image of the police and about how the public perceived them. It really matters to them that they are trusted and that people can rely on their fairness and neutrality. This relationship is not something that any good cop would willingly put at risk and we would be daft to join the current feeding frenzy engendered by the media and politicians – neither of which trades comes anywhere near policing in the public’s sense of moral worth.

Bryn Caless is the author of the forthcoming Policing at the top (September) which can be ordered at 20% discount here:

Something must be done, now?

Last year, Professor David Nutt, founder of the newly formed Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, wrote a blog entry in response to the previous Government’s decision to ban methedrone, a so-called ‘legal high’. He commented that ‘the niceties of legal process and proper procedure on drug classification are as nothing beside the media-driven political demand that something must be done, and done now’. Furthermore, he suggested that the relationship between science and politics was at stake as was the very cause of evidence-based policy making. The date was April 1st, but this was not a joke. Nutt had been on a collision course with certain New Labour ministers for some time culminating with his dismissal as the Chair of ACMD on the accusation of ‘trivialising’ the dangers of drugs by suggesting, amongst other things, that ecstasy use was less harmful than horse-riding. This was just one episode in the whirligig surrounding the issue of drug classification and evidence prominent in the media.

Later in 2010 in the aftermath of Nutt’s removal from ACMD and the change of Government came the sensationalist headline in the Guardian that the ‘Government proposes to scrap the need for scientific advice on drugs policy’. This was in response to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. Tucked away inside this, alongside proposals to reform the organisation of policing and to establish new regulations about policing protests, was the desire to amend the constitution of the ACMD so that it was no longer necessary to include members with ‘experience in specified activities’. These include medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, the pharmaceutical industry, and chemistry. In addition ‘persons with wide experience of social problems connected with the misuse of drugs’ may also be dispatched.

In the research paper accompanying the Bill it states that the ‘amendment effectively removes the requirement for the ACMD to have any particular kind of expertise’. Here the operative words are ‘particular kind’, but in the aftermath of the publication of the Bill, trench warfare resumed. Critics such as the Drug Equality Alliance suggested that the Bill is, in effect, sweeping away potential heretics that might seek to use evidence rather than tabloid hysteria to fulfill the need to be seen to be doing something. In response, the minister responsible James Brokenshire commented that ‘scientific advice is absolutely critical to the government’s approach to drugs and any suggestion that we are moving away from it is absolutely untrue’. Such debates mirror those about the evidence-base for the drug classification system, in particular, and heavily politicised areas more generally. Here supporters proclaim policies to be evidence-based whilst simultaneously detractors cry foul that the evidence is neglected. Such debates generate headlines but neither is accurate and rarely can policy be reduced to such straightforward accounts. A different conclusion is that policy formulation is frequently a jumble of evidence-based policy and policy-based evidence. This more sober reading is, however, unlikely to grasp the media headlines.

Mark Monaghan, author of Evidence versus politics

Author interview: Yvonne Rydin

Photo of Yvonne Rydin

Yvonne Rydin, Professor of Planning, Environment and Public Policy at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and Director of the UCL Environment Institute, is author of The purpose of planning, published this month. She was kind enough to be the first in our new series of author interviews. Here she answers some questions we put to her:

TPP: How did you come to be interested in planning?

YR: At university I tried out mathematics and then economics before coming across a multi-disciplinary subject called Land Economy. This really appealed to me as it allowed one to think about the environment from the perspectives of law, economic, property theory, planning and so on. I guess I had always been interested in the world immediately around me and this gave me the frameworks to understand why the countryside and our urban areas were the way they were. A spell in a surveying practice saw me working on planning appeals and development proposals. I became fascinated in the way that the planning system actually worked. This led to my first area of research on housing land policy under the Thatcher government of the early 1980s.

TPP: What areas have you been involved in during your career?

YR: I have been in a range of departments: estate or land management, applied economics, geography and then geography & environment, and lastly in planning. In each place I learnt about a different take on planning or, more generally, governing our urban and natural environments. I became particularly interested in the environmental agenda around 1990 and have since then tried to put all my interests together in terms of governing for sustainability, particularly urban sustainability. I have researched a number of different policy domains – housing, retail, transport, water , etc. – but in each case sought to understand what the planning efforts in the broadest sense were achieving.

TPP: Tell us about a typical day in your working life (if there is such a thing!)

YR: I am half-time in the Bartlett School of Planning and half-time Director of the UCL Environment Institute. So a day can combine teaching our MSc students on the MSc Sustainable Urbanism with work to support inter-disciplinary dialogue on environmental topics through the Environment Institute. For example, we are currently organising a two day Anglo-American Symposium on energy management and the built environment, and I am chairing a UCL Commission on Healthy Cities, bringing together colleagues across UCL to tackle the inter-relationship between the built environment and health outcomes. I also run an EPSRC-funded project on urban energy initiatives called CLUES, which is currently collating and analysing a database of such initiatives across the UK.

TPP: What do you think the purpose of planning should be – to preserve historic and interesting buildings, to encourage new builds to accommodate society’s needs of the 21st century, a combination of the two or something else entirely?

YR: The planning system has no choice but to tackle the whole gamut of problems that our urban and natural environments pose. This will involve managing the environments we currently have but also shaping change through new development and resource exploitation. This multi-faceted nature of the planning system creates many complexities for practice but the challenge is to deliver environmental change and conservation in line with public policy goals that carry broad support within society.

TPP: What are the major planning challenges for the 21st century?

YR: Undoubtedly the main challenge that 21st century faces in all policy domains in climate change and the need to restructure our society and economy to deliver carbon reductions within a timescale that will limit climate change. This has implications for the planning system since we will need different towns, cities and countryside once we have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels and developed a better understanding of the carbon implications of our activities.

TPP: How does the recently published Localism bill link to David Cameron’s idea of The Big Society?

YR: The Localism Bill is a fascinating mix of ideas. It proposes Neighbourhood Plans supported by Neighbourhood Development Orders which could give local communities much more say in the planning decisions and vision for their immediate locality. However for this to represent some form of local agreement on environmental conservation and change, there will need to be considerable involvement by local communities in neighbourhood planning rather than the ‘usual suspects’ dominating proceedings. This rather assumes we will be transformed into active citizens. But neighbourhood planning will still need the support of professional planners to give the wider picture, show how local development may have non-local consequences and enable local communities to think of long term consequences as well.

TPP: What do you think of the idea that householders may be allowed to build extensions without planning permission?

YR: In general I think this is a good idea. There is a lot of micro-management within the planning system that consumes considerable time and resources. That said, people often look to the planning systems to resolve neighbourhood disputes over extensions, etc. If this is taken outside the planning system there will be a need for neighbourhood dispute resolution services to be available.

TPP: And finally, have you ever sought planning permission for a project yourself and, if so, how did it feel to be “on the other side” with your knowledge of planning?

YR: Not in my private life but I started out my professional life ‘on the other side’. This gave me a clear understanding of how the economics of the development process is integral to urban change. As a citizen, I have attended public meetings around local development plans and must admit that I have often found them baffling and frustrating. There is a real need to find a way to engage with the public that recognises both what people actually want from planning consultation and how planners are able to use and respond to the fruits of consultation. Easier said than done!

Many thanks Yvonne. If you’d like to know more about Yvonne’s thoughts on planning, her book can be ordered here at 20% discount.

Choice moves up the public agenda

It’s encouraging to see that ideas around choice are creeping up the public agenda. Renata Salecl’s new book Choice in Profile’s big ideas series focuses on the tendency of increasing choice to create anxieties & so contribute to the air of anxiety that pervades modern (or is it post modern?) culture. This is not a view I would dissent from, though I would want to sugest that reactions to increased choice vary markedly between individuals, & probably over time for the same individual.
Meantime the introduction of more choice in public services, as against an emphasis on provision, seems to be emerging as one of the few issues separating the Milliband brothers in their pursuit of the Labour party leadership, with David, the true heir to Blair, being in favour of more choice as progressive & a worthwhile reform.
Michael Clarke, author of Challenging choices

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 85 other followers