Author Archives: Tony Baldwinson

Is “work pays” still a useful policy, or are we now needing a Universal Income?

Summary

The “work pays” policy was a cornerstone of social policy and practice for much of the 20th century. However, the decline in the quality of much work in the 21st century, matched with new limits and cuts in benefits, now means that the former certainty of this policy is now undermined. A Universal Income is a suggested new tool in fighting poverty and disadvantage, but it currently has some flaws.

Discussion

In the 1980s and 1990s the strong belief in community regeneration was in a policy known as “work pays.” For anyone who was unemployed, the belief was that helping someone get a job was the single best thing that you could do as a practitioner. It improved people’s mental health, their physical health, their range of contacts and support, the life chances, and these benefits extended to the immediate family – children would do better at school, for example.

Some of these claims were articles of faith rather than being based on documented research, but the feeling was it so obvious as not worthy of a long study.

And mostly this belief was well-founded. Though I do recall at some meetings in Manchester in the voluntary sector in the 1980s having to remind people that it had its limits. Some of my reminders were:
– There are some people we can get along with at work but we would never invite home.
– There are some supervisors who are basically not very nice at work, and the temptation to storm out of work with a “you can stuff your job” over the shoulder is sometimes hard to resist.
– And, it is hard if you are the first person in your household to have a job, because you have to go to sleep earlier than everyone else, and everyone assumes you have more money to share, even in your first week or month when you are spending on buses etc and waiting to be paid.

Those caveats aside, broadly the “work pays” policy was a strong cornerstone of social policy, certainly up to 2000.

But, slowly a drift in the economy started to undermine this policy. The push for a “flexible labour market” led to a freelance culture being spread from middle-class professionals to working class communities, the most obvious aspects being zero-hours contracts and self-employment as a means of avoiding employment law duties.

Sensing that the world of work was becoming less rewarding, the policy consensus by the national political parties at the time was to “align” welfare benefits with the labour market. At it’s best, this could mean that the transition from unemployment to work was smoother. But more often at it’s worst, this meant that benefits were driven downwards to match the falling standards in the world of work.

Trade unions also had increasing legal restrictions placed on their operations. In a climate of declining membership and de-industrialisation, trade unions were at risk of becoming craft associations again. This trend, if followed for some years, could protect the higher career grades at the expense of labourers etc, just as the craft guilds had been up to the 1870s when the unionisation of dock workers started the era of mass working class membership.

Perhaps the lowest point, so far at least, of these trends in ratcheting down employment rights, welfare benefits rights, and trade union protection rights, was in the creation of Universal Credit.

The proponents of Universal Credit tried to pretend that “work pays” was still effective, conveniently ignoring more recent evidence of its failings as outlined above, and in its later stages being cut back even further by Chancellors of the Exchequer in the name of Austerity. Limiting the number of children that can be supported by a family while being unemployed is probably the most egregious of these cuts.

Few serious social policy advisors would now argue the advantages of Universal Credit; but there is a lot of interest in its possible replacement by a Universal Income.

In short, a universal income would be payable to every adult, working or not. For me, it should be paid weekly because the idea of poor people budgeting monthly is a vindictive fiction – every poor person has times with no money, but a few days to ‘pay day’ is easier to live with than trying to go for weeks with nothing.

But a universal income must also have additional costs top-ups. The additional costs that disabled people have to meet are probably the largest here. Child benefit, at a rate where children are genuinely taken out of poverty, is another.

Finally, any such changes will involve winners and losers. This is a fair point, but let’s be honest about the score so far, that already some people have been on a winning streak through incredible tax cuts and loopholes. Maybe “work pays” as a policy is over, but we are still a fair way from “living pays”.

The need for a hub in Manchester for disabled people’s organisations

For sixteen years, Manchester had a hub for disabled people’s organisations. Based in Ardwick, Aked Close was the home for a cluster of disabled people’s organisations from 1997 to 2013. The anchor organisation which had overall responsibility for Aked Close was Breakthrough UK, which had disabled people’s employment as its main focus. Other organisations working there as well included:

– Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People

– People First

– Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group,

– Manchester Young Disabled People’s Forum,

as well as

– the council’s direct payments team.

There were many advantages to this hub arrangement, including the shared use of a fully accessible main hall, generous car parking for disabled drivers, and shared costs for common services such as reception, security, and cleaning. But perhaps the key advantage was having a shared working and meeting space with like-minded people and organisations.

The cross-learning, the organisational and personal mentoring, the solidarity, and the sense of community was profoundly energising in driving forward the reputation of Manchester as a national centre of progressive thought and practices at the forefront of disabled people’s rights.

Aked Close was leased by Breakthrough UK from Manchester City Council. The building was run within the social services department, and had previously been one of their office bases, which they had called Ross Place.

The difficulties started with the change of government in 2010, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats which embarked on a policy of austerity by cuts in the public sector, but with a focus on local authorities, on social care, and on disabled people. This perfect storm put intense pressure on all the organisations based at Aked Close. The organisations managed to survive this storm for three years, but eventually the pressures were too great.

Unfortunately Manchester City Council wasn’t able to shelter Aked Close from that storm, and instead sought a large rent increase to, reportedly, just under a hundred thousand pounds. This was not affordable to the tenants, especially at a time when their grant income was either frozen or ending suddenly.

This meant that the tenants had to disburse to various smaller, separate, and more isolated premises. And perhaps to rub salt in the wound, when the social services department took control of the building again for their own uses, they insisted on changing the name back to Ross Place. And they found enough funds to spend almost a year refurbishing the building (Engie Regeneration Ltd, Jan – Nov 2018).

When Breakthrough UK started in the mid-1990s its initial work was to take some legacy social services projects on employment for disabled people. This involved changing the management and control of those projects, changing the governance so that disabled people’s organisations gained control from non-disabled managers within the council.

The feeling remains that some managers within the council, once austerity started, saw a chance to settle a grievance and regain control of the building if not the legacy projects they had also lost to disabled people’s organisations.

But, maybe we can draw a line on the closure of Aked Close and how it was done six years ago, and now look forward to creating a new, affordable hub in Manchester for disabled people’s organisations. I hope so.

And a word of caution.

There is a view that Manchester should have a CIL – a centre for independent living, sometimes called inclusive living or integrated living. It would be tempting to see such a new CIL as a hub, but if so:

(a) it must have the full range of characteristics and the necessary scale to be truly a hub, and

(b) any CIL must not become a cost-saving outsourcing of social care assessments and direct payments admin leading to reductions in disabled people’s independence by finding savings so that other parts of the council or government can have more to spend.

Nor in the suggestions for a Manchester CIL should we forget that not long ago the Trafford CIL nearby has had to close down after cuts in its grants.

[ends]

What would urban regeneration look like if we relied less on alcohol?

It is a new truism in urban regeneration that we will have to rely less on vanilla retail for town and city centres, partly because of the trend towards online shopping and also with the trend towards smaller and more frequent on-the-way-home shopping. Even cinemas are losing footfall to Netflix.

And instead we should design High Streets for corporeal *experiences* such as eating, coffee shop chats with mates, haircuts, and galleries. Bookshops are on the cusp of sustaining and declining, and I for one hope they continue because browsing for new books cannot work virtually.

But maybe top of the experiences list, at least financially, is alcohol. So we wish for quiet and sophisticated high-earning consumers who will sit together with a £65 bottle or two of St Émilion before their taxis home, but … we mostly get noisy anti-social groups intimidating streets and public transport with a strain on police, paramedics, and cleansing services.

And a public health legacy which includes heart disease and kidney failure, and researched increases in domestic violence.

So although taxes are collected and High Streets are vibrant, I feel we should think a little harder about *sustainable* urban communities and how we could do better for our town and city centres.

Yes, a Brexit no deal is a bluff, but not with the EU, it is with the British people

There is a view that the Government’s threat of a Brexit no-deal is a bluff. This is possible, but maybe the bluff is not with the EU leaders (they are used to this from the UK by now) but instead the bluff is with the British people.

Basically the strategy is to scare the bejeebers out of everyone sensible, and to rally to the flag everyone who thinks Brexit is brilliant.

But all the time with the Government cynically knowing that a deal must be done, and that the options are very few. So, for example, while we keep the bluff playing out on TV and in the papers, how do we get ready behind the scenes to dress up a Norway-type option as a brilliant UK deal in late October?

1. Don’t ever call it the Norway option, even though it removes the need for any hard border backstop within the island of Ireland; and removes the threat of tariffs on farms. Maybe call it “UK-Plus”.

2. Use all your force to bounce people into the deal at the last moment, saying it has to be this UK-Plus or no deal.

3. Throw out a lot of smoke and noise about “side deals”, about further transitions being on the cards, about freedom to start free trade talks around the world – the beginning not the end, that sort of thing.

4. Come out hard on EU nationals living in the UK: divide them into good ones (such as much-needed nurses) and bad ones (insert racist stereotypes here). Require all EU nationals to register in the National Insurance system on arrival, deport any not paying in after three months, and agree a “side deal” with EU countries to recharge the return-journey costs. Probably not cost-effective, but it plays well in the nationalist press.

5. Get some good pictures for TV of all the MEPs packing their bags and leaving the EU Parliament.

6. And convert some of the no deal contingency funds into £350m a week for the NHS.

Politics – how we might get from breakdown to recovery

What should progressive people and groups do when we find themselves in a failed State? The usual response to a reactionary government would be to plan to overcome them at the first opportunity, usually being at the next general election. But for.

Parliament breakdown

The Labour party in the UK is in a strange difficulty. At the same time as being the party with the largest membership base of any in western Europe; it is also a party without sufficient MPs in the House of Commons to seize control. And election polls predict no improvement here. Labour claim the polls will be proved wrong, but this is despite the low voting numbers in the European elections a few months ago. A contributing factor here is the breakdown of tribal loyalties to the two largest parties in England, where maybe such a lifelong voting habit was a 20th century voting habit that is now fading away.

Brexit breakdown

And without rehearsing the whole argument, in short Brexit has sliced UK politics in profoundly new ways – new left-right alliances that were impossible even three years ago, and new divisions within all the main parties and within many communities.

Climate breakdown

And a climate emergency with science showing an imminent tipping point for the planet – which means the politics of ‘kicking zero carbon down the road’ to 2050 is just a dishonest gesture.

The usual solutions

One response to any crisis is to open the bottom drawer and fetch out the dusty hobby horses. The answer to our troubles is to be found in … electoral reform … one more push … higher taxation … carbon tax … assemblies … referendums … local currencies … etc. But in our bones we know that these will not cut it, and certainly not if they are done alone. The scale of the problem is such that things like these that used to be our strategies have been reduced to just being tactics.

Old influencers are under attack

The old trusted organisations that influenced the thinking and behaviours of people in communities and across the country are fading away. The trusted news sources, the discredited authority of some church and faith organisations, and our shared experience of a mass media – all are in decline. Partly with through the use of a tech revolution these large, sometimes stodgy, old influencers are being sliced and diced by the unchecked power of wealth and its unlimited greed.

New channels of resistance

Perhaps the power we are looking for is to be found in the places where we share our lives. Towns and cities can be small enough to build relationships and large enough to make a difference when they move to collective action. If so, it means disengaging from national government except to resist it. It cannot be a network if that is only to be a cover to provide window-dressing for what remains a national organisation, it has to be a new way of working that is non-national and anti-nationalist.

For the longer term, the task will be how to re-make national government in a way which better resists the forces of greed and nationalism.

The Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) proposals

There is now a general disquiet in non-governmental circles around the substantially stalled process to develop the new SPF. It is no longer controversial to acknowledge that this paralysis is a product of the shattering of both parliament and government by the consequences of the 2016 Brexit referendum. The premise of SPF is or was that it would replace the EU structural and investment funds (ESIF) in the UK.

ESIF is worth around £2.4 billion a year to the UK, and it is a multi-annual fund with a legal base (similar to the Comprehensive Spending Review process in the UK but with stronger laws). In the 1980s the ESIF method of locally managed but internationally audited programmes emerged, the previous method had been one of many small projects, and all directly managed in Brussels. Throughout the 1990s UK local authorities strongly defended the ESIF method because it gave local control and multi-annual certainty over substantial capital and revenue funds. For the same reasons Whitehall and ministers felt by-passed but could not change the EU consensus.

As a case study (from this writer’s experience 1991-2002) Manchester City Council established a Resource Procurement Group which brought together various EU and UK funds to operate multi-funded neighbourhood programmes which dovetailed the various funds into local priority projects, providing a continuity of local provision almost regardless of the annual variations, new funds starting, and older funds being closed. Many such funds were area based and deprivation based (often two sides of the same coin) and it was the collapse of these UK area based funds from 2010 that has impacted hard on local authority finances, and especially in the urban north. So to some extent, the details of the SPF’s possible operations are second-order matters to the overall level of funding available, and to the multi-annual stability of such ‘guaranteed’ funds. In these regards the ESIF arrangements have consistently set a higher standard than UK public funds. That is point one.

The second point is also contextual, but perhaps even more important. There is already a consensus that historians will remark of the failure by government at the time to go into the 2016 referendum with any plan about what to do if people voted to leave. Now, in 2019, we risk the reverse happening. If the UK finds itself remaining in the EU, either by a further decisive moment or by a drift of general inertia and weariness, again we have no plan, this time to remain. The current ESIF multi-annual period ends on 31 December 2020, and already the legal and political discussions are well advanced for the 2021-onward next period.

So the question is, given the impossibility of government for contingency planning – then to leave or now to remain – what needs to be done in the towns, cities and rural areas of the UK where prosperity has left?

At one level we can assemble a programme of what might be called typically needed projects: revitalising High Streets, reducing childhood obesity and ill-health, supporting people of all ages into careers in the service sectors, building up the arts and cultural experience-economy alongside existing retail and its similar consumption-economy which, in green terms, need to be modified if we are to move towards sustainable economies and places.

But behind the scenes, we also need the ability to plan across years: to mix capital and revenue funds within one coherent programme, mindful that regeneration and sustainable communities (cross-party, from Michael Heseltine to John Prescott) requires interventions of a length that changes the next generation for good whatever the short-term changes in the position of the electoral cycle. To understand this is to appreciate that even a CSR timescale is short-term in terms of achieving regeneration and sustainable communities.

Finally, a comment on capital programmes. A key change in Whitehall since the mid-1990s has been the loss of experienced staff in terms of running a capital programme. Whether this loss was caused by the move to PFI will be another matter for historians, but the effect has been that departments tend to still be able to control revenue programmes but they outsource their capital programmes, for example to construction firms or to rail operators. This has an unwanted effect of removing long-term planning within departmental spending strategies, with a focus now limited on annual settlements and periodically a CSR, but not further ahead. Sadly this also applies to HM Treasury, which has increasingly become a career stepping stone rather than a destination.

Next steps

There will be any number of organisations and worthwhile local projects seeking whatever funding is possible, even if only for a few months, such is the level of austerity and deprivation being faced in many areas of Britain where prosperity has left. The awful long-term trend of now shortening lifespans for poorer people is the KPI here.

This immediate need must be addressed, but for long-term generational improvements we need to also start on capacity building the ecosystems (public, voluntary, cultural, private) behind these projects (such as with ESIF technical assistance funds and whatever UK equivalents can be found as well) so that future generations get a chance again to experience sustainable prosperity and wellbeing.

(these are the personal views of the writer)

Joy Division: an oral history, a book by Jon Savage

On Saturday 27 April 2019 Jon Savage gave a talk at the Home arts centre in Manchester on his new book, Joy Division: an oral history, after showing a rare video which he produced of the band playing live at the Manchester Apollo in 1979. He is a music journalist who moved to Manchester in the 1970s to cover ‘the scene’.

Lessons:

The Manchester music scene in 1970s-1990s worked because:

– all the corporates were is London and Manchester ‘only’ had independent labels. They weren’t perfect, not many talented female musicians thrived in the blokey culture, but it did sustain bands such as Joy Division. Had JD gone to a London corporate, Ian Curtis would have been peeled away from the rest of the band as a solo artist, and expected to make a hit single every three months and an album every year.

– there were basically semi-derelict spaces within the city for affordable living, where new communities could grow and flourish. JS felt that this was no longer the case for Manchester, but was still possible in Glasgow, and maybe in parts of Birmingham. This is the tension within place-making, where artists create desirability, but then rising values which attract investors but push away creative clusters. The knack of doing urban regeneration based on sustainable communities remains a lesson mostly unlearnt since the 1980s because of short-term capital pressures.

I agree with JS and I liked his talk because it matched my taste in music, but also matched with my interest in genuine urban regeneration based on sustainable communities. Useful lessons I feel that work across cultural and arts sectors generally, eg screen, theatre, music.