Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Tale of Two Countries

Andrew Hunter, co-founder of Adzuna [jobs website], said in the article below that ‘the UK jobs market was becoming a “tale of two halves”, with significantly more vacancies in the south.’

As a competitor jobs website, I wonder if LinkedIn UK directors would also want to comment?


What did the Victorians ever do for us?

There is a debate underway about Victorian philanthropy and whether we would benefit from its revival in the twenty-first century. Where to start? Perhaps with a comment that this is not new.

The Victorian era seems to have fascinated the British ever since it finished. The following was written in the swinging sixties: “For some years now the economic trends of the late nineteenth century in Britain have caused acute controversy. They have been examined not only as features of a particular economic situation but also in the hope of throwing light on the sources of our more recent discontents …” (Ashworth, 1966).

In short, economically the mid 1800s in Victorian Britain saw a very high rate of economic growth, but this rate had considerably slowed down by the late 1800s and was followed by the Depression in the 1920s.

There is also a lot of published work on the role of the workhouse during the Victorian period and how it replaced the Elizabethan Poor Law which had codified outdoor relief, which roughly we might call care in the community, 1600s style. The workhouse also led to some of the early general hospitals as a form of spin-off, and increasingly the workhouse population was the elderly poor until the first general pension was introduced in the early 1900s.

In current political thinking we see the start of the welfare state as 1945 onwards with the birth of the NHS, however some academics would go back further to the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 introduced by Lloyd George. However, our current political discussions seem to separate out the NHS from welfare benefits.

Of current note, the state pension in 1908 was only paid to people over 70 years of age.

Perhaps less explored is the area where our Victorian forebears wrestled on the interactions between the private and the public sector. For example, the Victorians effectively nationalised the utility companies, taking them under municipal control initially, and later consolidating these into national boards. The logic for this legal shift was the inefficiency of private sector utilities.

Another example: the regulation of banks and of limited companies, where various scandals and bubbles brought the wilder excesses of the private sector under control. Similarly scandals in the running of workhouses, such as people being so deprived of food that they ate rancid horse bones, led to social reforms with national inspectors for minimum welfare standards.

Lastly, English Heritage would not appreciate a return to Victorian values. The Victorians were ruthless developers, demolishing the medieval heart of many towns and cities, putting up new buildings and roads left, right and centre.

Is there a conclusion to this question? Perhaps only that the economics, politics and social conditions of Victorian Britain were just as complicated as they are today, with no simple answers but with many useful lessons to be found within the detail.

The Late Victorian Economy, by W. Ashworth, in Economica New Series, Vol. 33, No. 129 (Feb., 1966), pp. 17-33
Published by: Wiley
Article Stable URL:

Are councils becoming too punitive?

Recently I’ve started to wonder if local authorities are becoming too punitive, or at least risk being perceived as such by residents.

The link below is a news item concerning a council which sent a Christmas card to its tenants which was felt to be insulting, saying “Don’t overindulge this Christmas. Pay your rent!”.

Of course there has always been a need for local law keeping and civil behaviour, dealing with a percentage of any population who, by degrees, behave anti-socially.

But I worry that, with local authorities on a long path of reducing resources and staffing levels, councils are taking on a residual role of punishment (parking, bins, etc) as well as collecting ever-higher charges (council tax, near-market rents, social care charges) and distributing less money (bedroom tax, benefits cap).

These trends leave little or maybe no space for the previous role of councils as an enabler, as a promoter of wellbeing and of improvement. The changes give local authority staff less experience in their working lives of engaging with people and communities in a positive and trusting manner.

And these trends mean councils will need to reinvent themselves if and when the better times return, but only if there is still some residual local support for the idea of local government – rather than just a new hostility to local enforcement.

Link –

Regional house prices diverge since 2007, London up 40% but Wales etc down 41%

Given the recent reports on unsustainable property prices, and for example the housing pressures for key workers in London, we should consider separating the price of the building from the price of the land.

The idea here is that the owner-occupier or social landlord only pays for the building. They would rent the land, like a ground rent, but without having a long lease to sell on as an asset along with the building.

It is possible to build a modern car in a factory for under £2,000 and houses are actually less complex than cars, although a bit more bulky. Using offsite manufacturing, road delivery of house modules, and craning onto foundations with service connections, at scale a house could be ready to use for £5,000 to £10,000.

By removing the value of the years ahead of the lease, the price of a house could become less of an object for speculation. It would become a consumption good, not an investment asset. Publicly owned land could be given a ground rent waiver for key worker occupiers.


It is time for CCTV in the House of Commons

When TV cameras were first introduced in the House of Commons, MPs were worried that televising debates would reduce the dignity of the chamber. So, to try and protect the dignity of the House the rule was created that only images of the person speaking at the time could be broadcast. How wrong they were.

The level of behaviour by many MPs is now appallingly low. But we have to rely on print journalists to convey a sense of the sexist gestures or the yah-boo jeering from people off-camera. The cameras are not allowed to be used to show, and shame, such anti-social behaviour.

It is as if the CCTV room of a shopping centre is being controlled by the shoplifters. How convenient – just switch off the cameras whenever they might catch someone up to no good.

So, it is time to change the rule. We need to allow any broadcast channel (BBC, ITV, etc) access to all camera feeds in real time. Let their editors decide which images are most appropriate to show, for example to cut to show a gesturing back-bench MP sitting opposite when a woman MP is speaking.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The collapse of the centre, and reforming the House of Commons

Together with national journalism, national politics is held in high disrepute. In the public mind the expenses scandal is seen alongside the hacking scandal. Turnout at elections continues to decline. We are told this week of a proposed 11% pay rise for MPs. Never mind the details that it is proposed by Ipsa and not by MPs, and there is a reduced pension later on – the 11% headline is what will stick in the public memory. And it gets worse.

In his recent blog the leader of Manchester council complains about MPs having ‘nothing better to do’ than put their oar in on council issues, such as the state of the roads or the level of Council tax.

Women MPs are said to be planning to stand down at the next general election in unprecedented high numbers, having endured the sexism of “debate” behaviour in the House of Commons along with feeling irrelevant as MPs – so near government and yet so far from being included.

Until recently, it was the received wisdom that the introduction of Select Committees of MPs was a great step forward, giving MPs a strong scrutinising role across the departments of government, being able to take the time to master their brief. But apart from the Public Accounts Committee, it is hard to see that these scrutiny committees have much improved an aspect of government policy or delivery in recent times. MPs on other committees may bemoan that the PAC gets all the star witnesses, and therefore TV coverage, but good and steady work in the background should still be possible for any select committee worth its salt.

Talking about his book, The Blunders of Government, (2013), Professor Anthony King has commented that reform of the House of Commons is now more important than trying to modernise the House of Lords, and he is right.

I had a recent conversation with a young man from Scotland. Last year I would have said that Scottish Independence was unlikely, the vote maybe 35:65. This year I’m not so sure. What crystallised this change for me was talking to this young man about the feelings of his friends about the bedroom tax (spare room subsidy). It is keenly felt by them, rightly or wrongly, as indicative of a wide gulf between the cultures and economic pressures of the south east of England and of Scotland.

I would like to think that a stronger, reformed House of Commons would have sensed this feeling early on and spoken its truth to power. But instead, MPs themselves say they feel sidelined, left only to issue local press releases on the state of the roads.

In 2014 the independence vote will come after the European elections, which themselves seem set to widen divisions within the parties as well as between them. All this fracturing within the House of Commons will be unedifying and will not help Parliament regain public trust.

Maybe we should vote for Professor King instead.

Disclaimer – personal views only, as ever.