Author Archives: Tony Baldwinson

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.

On Impatience

Friends who know me well might sometimes call me impatient. I don’t know this exactly for a fact, but I’m pretty sure even so.

Is it a bad thing, or can it ever be good?

Since childhood I’ve known I am prepared to be different at times, to be comfortable with not following a trend, if I thought something else was right or needed to be said or done. Perhaps this is what people now call as having confidence.

But it can have a downside – being maybe seen as not being a team player, or worse, of arrogance.

So, I’ve always known it is balancing act. Trying to be humble helps, I find.

The fact that I might do more than average at times is not a criticism of anyone else. When I was young and involved in student politics one of my colleagues complained in a meeting that I did too much work. I would be writing letters or giving welfare advice to other students (my role at the time) while my colleague was downstairs playing bridge. What can you do? (As I write this I am the only person in this cafe with a keyboard…)

Also important is being open to being told one is wrong on something. It does happen, embarrassingly often it sometimes feels. And maybe it is me, but in general I think men need to reflect on this habit more than women. I try and be clear with people about what is just a suggestion of mine, just an idea, some bit of new research that might be useful, and that what I am saying is really no more than that.

I guess one of my personal drivers is a belief that we all have some power, whatever our circumstances, and a belief in a moral or ethical obligation to use that power in a positive, sharing, generous manner. I’m not saying I do that, or often enough, but it is my objective and is a good one to have.

So, can an impatient person be a team player?

I think so, but it isn’t automatic or guaranteed.

Teams are always a balance of different strengths, and there are a few models in psychology that suggest different types of individuals (eg horizon scanners) and the good or bad team dynamics that come with different mixes.

But I think there is an extra layer to be taken into account. It isn’t just the personality type that matters, it is also the personal values that each person brings to the table that matter too.

For me, that is the balance I try for: yes, to “get stuff done” but always within a social context of a shared endeavour. Even when writing a book.

Finally, some politics.

In her day, and my childhood, Barbara Castle was called a fire-brand. A strong woman, left wing, and a radical Minister in the Labour government during the 1960s. She was as well known to the public as Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister.

She was at a Labour party conference one time, speaking to the vast hall of thousands, saying how the government wasn’t doing enough for working people, and urging more radicalism.

“Conference,” she said, “all they ever promise us is jam tomorrow. Comrades, what we demand is jam today!”

I know how she felt.

Disabled People and Manchester City Council: on being a critical friend

Sometimes a friend has to tell someone close to them an uncomfortable truth. That truth can be the test of the friendship, and it can also be the making of it, the defining moment when change and renewal becomes possible.

I was struck while in an ordinary meeting of people working in the built environment, where no-one knew my background, that unprompted two people separately said how Manchester has an excellent reputation across the UK for access for older people and disabled people.

For another day we need to make this practice and its history more widely known. An excellent start currently is the mini-series of graphic story-telling magazines produced by young people at the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) called, The Accessibles.

These graphic magazines acknowledge the work of council officers such as Neville Strowger, as well as the various campaigns by GMCDP and the Access Group. Innovations such as the Local Routes project which started in the housing estates of Wythenshawe in the early 1990s, as well as the first fully-accessible multi-sports stadium and international games in 2002. And especially noting the Design for All programme of policies, training, and informative leaflets.

However, and this is the difficult bit, in recent years we have seen basic level mistakes start to creep back in. The re-paving of Lloyd Street which has created trip hazards with members of the public being injured and now temporary pedestrian barriers in permanent use around hazard areas.

Next, and possible politically worse, is the new design for a monument on the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. Approved in a rush in March 2019 and to be built and finished by late July 2019. A monument that is inaccessible to disabled people, who will have a smaller, flat replica nearby, a segregated version of the real one. A segregated monument to the fight for democracy. Oh Manchester! How could you?

How has it come to this? Unfortunately it isn’t a simple matter of not knowing or forgetting. The access consultants gave early advice on Lloyd Street re-paving on how to avoid trip hazards. Similarly, the consultation on the monument design created a lot of adverse comments on the exclusion of disabled people. The written summary of the consultation responses even included a bemused observation by the officials on just how many comments were concerning the access barriers. As if these comments were somehow unwelcome or inappropriate.

So, why is advice bring wilfully and repeatedly ignored?

And this is the tough message, as you would expect from a close friend. Somehow there has developed a ‘we know best’ culture in some areas or teams within the officials. Perhaps it is a sign of how proud they are to work for a council with a strong reputation. The demise of working with the local access group as key advisors is part of the mix. But instead of building on previous gains and relationships, there is instead a perception of arrogance, that the past was flawed, its people mistaken, and all such old ways need to be ignored from now on.

The past wasn’t perfect, by any means. But it was actually better then than now. These basic mistakes were not made when the city centre was redeveloped after the 1996 bomb. Nor when Central Library was first refurbished, the Art Gallery made accessible, John Rylands library opened to disabled people a century after it was built, and the old Town Hall opened up to democratically include disabled people with equal civil rights.

How we get away from a ‘we know best’ culture and move towards a ‘we learn together’ culture is, ultimately, a task for the paid officials to sort out for themselves. But disabled people deserve better than the current back-sliding, and the good reputation and hard work previously won by Manchester learning together is about to slip away on their watch.

Hopeful Towns – regeneration beyond the city centres – let’s start with an art cafe

Towns, especially in the North, need to feel hopeful places. How can we make this happen?

Urban regeneration has become something odd in recent years, so currently it is absolutely about residential property, land values, and buy-to-rent or buy-to-leave capital investments.

And the so-called Industrial Towns have been hit hardest, now too often post-industrial towns, declining High Streets, closing libraries, public services under constant strain, the public realm a mash of litter, pot-holes, and make-do patches, buses once every two hours, nothing much after 7pm, and costing almost as much as a taxi.

The ideas coming out of the USA to counter austerity *and* climate breakdown focus on a Green New Deal. In the UK there is interest in this approach from some backbench Labour MPs and in the Green party.

The north of England has got in name a Northern Powerhouse, but without funds and without legal powers. An obvious early project would be railway electrification. Jobs and climate breakdown. Just stand at Victoria station in Manchester or New Street in Birmingham and try and breathe – this is how ridiculous we have become.

But even with top-down funding and powers, there is essential work that must be done bottom-up, with communities, and in places where international capital isn’t “investing” or sucking the money out.

For example, every town should have an art cafe. Probably next door to its youth centre. And a theatre space, probably flexibly designed for functions and civic events. In short, a “scene” which doesn’t see every likely 18-year old heading off to the nearest city for anything exciting or rewarding.

Funds will be needed, but we also need ideas and ambition to build hopeful towns.