• Crossing boundaries
  • Are mandarins the problem?
  • Is the summer campaign an admission of failure?
  • The Liberal Democrats and DRIP

http://www.alexsarchives.org/5844/

The Mansion Tax as a symptom

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week proposed an increase in spending on the NHS to be funded in part by a Mansion Tax.  This has sparked the debate about the whys and wherefores of property taxes back into life. Taxing property a topic guaranteed to send the commentariat into a frenzy. It is a topic I’ve touched on before. Property taxes can be seen as a potential solution to a range of different problems, while others seem to see them as the start of a slippery slope to the demise of capitalism.

I sent a letter on the topic to the Evening Standard yesterday. This is what I wrote: [Read more...]

Together in election dreams

You can find one or two brave souls who are willing to put a positive spin on Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference yesterday. But the dominant view among the commentariat seemed to be that it all felt rather flat and unfocused. Given this was the last big set piece before the General Election that has got to be a worry for the Labour party. Hasn’t it?

Miliband’s omission of the passage on the deficit generated a lot of excitement, although it seems likely that this was a genuine failure of memory rather than a strategic omission. He would surely have realized that any such intentional omission would be jumped on, given that it had been pre-briefed to the media. He would, wouldn’t he?

I’m not surprised Miliband forgot some of the speech. Not just because it was long, but because it lacked much shape. I wasn’t able to watch the speech being delivered but I’ve read it and it lacks any clear structure or sense of direction. It also lacked much in the way of light and shade; highs and lows. I’m not sure it will keep students of political oratory detained for very long, except perhaps as a salutary lesson on the pitfalls of overdoing the empathy and attempts at humanisation.

Others have been more scathing. After spending several paragraphs picking out some modest positives from the speech John Rentoul finishes by summarizing with this zinger: [Read more...]

Policy unpacked #6 – Talking mayors at #pp2014

Policy Unpacked logoEarlier this week Bristol hosted the Policy & Politics Conference 2014. The conference theme was the challenges of leadership and collaboration in the 21st century. The conference examined governance structures at different spatial scales, but there was much talk about urban governance. [Read more...]

Independence, devolution and power

When I first saw this tweet, late last Saturday night, my immediate and admittedly facile response was “Neither of them”. Alex Salmond was propounding a vision for an independent Scotland that was no doubt seductive for many, but was panglossian in its optimism. For me, the Yes campaign was irresponsible in the way Salmond blithely dismissed all requests for detail or serious engagement with potential risks. It was premised on a blatant failure to acknowledge the geopolitical realities that an independent Scotland would face. Cameron, on the other hand, would seemingly say just about anything, panicking and offering ever greater concessions, if he thought it might increase the chances of a No vote. The cynic might say that if Cameron’s last minute appeals were filled with emotion it was just as likely to be distress at the thought of an early exit from Number 10 as it was at the thought of the union breaking up.

I didn’t envy the voters of Scotland their choice. On one side, the picture being painted of the post-independence world was inaccurate in ways that were rather irresponsible. And that wasn’t even allowing for all the areas in which we just didn’t know what might happen. On the other side, enticements from a set of Westminster politicians who have repeatedly proven themselves unable or unwilling to deliver on such pledges and largely motivated by self-preservation or preservation of sectional interest. Who to believe?

I guess we will never know how much the various promises affected the voting. At the moment all we know is the outcome. The referendum is history.

We are beginning to see the contours of the post-referendum game. And the game is beginning to look ugly. It would also appear that a new settlement for Scotland may not take centre stage. [Read more...]

Policy unpacked #5 – Real estate and cities

Policy Unpacked logoFor decades local and regional government in the US has attempted to capture value created in the real estate market in order to fund vital urban infrastructure.  In an era of austerity, where resources for conventional public investment are perceived to be increasingly scarce, governments around the world are interested the potential for learning lessons and transferring successful policies or instruments.
[Read more...]

Present and future conditional

job centre plus policeOne of the most striking developments in policy design in the UK is the rise of conditionality. It most prominently affects those who are out of work and seeking assistance from the welfare system, but it features across a range of other policy areas including housing and health.

Commentators might, quite rightly, rail against IDS and his insensitive disciplinary regime of seemingly indiscriminate sanctions, but he has only taken a system that was initiated by the Blairites in the 1990s and distilled it into something purer. He has made the conditions placed on receipt of assistance more stringent and the sanctions for transgression harsher. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that in some cases the system is now ludicrously harsh and vulnerable people are being set up to fail.

But conditionality doesn’t represent a distinctive evil incubated in the dark heart of fanatical rightwingers. And it is by no means a particularly British approach. Indeed, creeping – or galloping – conditionality can be observed in many industrialised countries since cuddly Bill Clinton introduced it into the American system to prove Democrats could be tough too. It is an issue that has preoccupied many social policy scholars for a decade or more. But it rarely gets examined intelligently in broader popular debates. It’s a done deal. Anyone against harsher conditionality is shouted down as “soft” on welfare and combatting “dependency”. So they can be safely ignored.

At the most fundamental level, conditionality represents a recasting of the relationship between the citizen and the state. While academics might debate whether state assistance has ever been entirely unconditional, it is clear that whereas once upon a time certain types of assistance were available as a right of citizenship, they are increasingly only offered upon fulfilment of certain conditions. Most typically these conditions relate to exhibiting particular behaviours – intensive job search as a condition of receiving JSA, desisting from anti-social behaviour as a condition of maintaining a social tenancy, etc.

Politicians are inclined to refer to this as a move from a “something for nothing” to a “something for something” culture. On the face of it that no doubt strikes most people as sensible and desirable. But, as is so often the case in policy, you have to get beyond the slogans and look at the detail and the practice on the ground. And when you do so it opens up some important questions about what the approach is trying to achieve. [Read more...]

Developments in the ongoing Bedroom Tax saga

8610361700_dea8d85350_zYou have to admire Andrew George. Or at least I do. Commentators are busying themselves accusing the Liberal Democrats of inconstancy or hypocrisy in supporting his Private Members’ Bill to reform the Bedroom Tax. But we should remember that George has ploughed a rather lonely furrow in consistent opposition to the policy from the start, even as the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party repeatedly lined up behind the Tories to support it.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the George’s Affordable Homes Bill, if it were to be successful, would bring housing benefit policy closer to current Liberal Democrat party policy. In that respect the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of hypocrisy. The more problematic issue is why the Libdem leadership supported a policy of such obvious boneheadedness in the first place.

Nor is it hypocritical to change position on a policy as new evidence comes to light. That is entirely reasonable and sensible. The more problematic issue is that the evidence that is said to have triggered the Liberal Democrat leadership change of position is not, really, very new. It largely confirms what people who understand the housing sector have been saying about the policy’s likely consequences since before the policy was implemented.

But there is some very clear hypocrisy and obfuscation in the Liberal Democrat messaging around yesterday’s events. [Read more...]

Not us, guv

Academic economists are smart people. In my experience, a few are rather too self-consciously smart. And one or two adopt the characteristic economist persona – perpetual patronisation of, and impatience with, those unfortunate souls working in the lesser social sciences – without obviously having the track record to justify the hauteur. If, that is, it can ever be justified.*

The unwary might be forgiven for thinking that the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, which it is generally agreed most macroeconomists did not anticipate, would take the wind out of economists’ sails somewhat. Some might argue that a degree more modesty about the discipline’s achievements would be appropriate in future.

And there was undoubtedly a period of reflection and self-criticism around 2008-2009. Senior economists were willing to speculate publicly on where it all went wrong. It’s an issue I’ve blogged about on previous occasions.

However, it wasn’t long before some of that smartness had been put to work articulating a range of reasons why the GFC should not be seen as a failure of economics as a body of knowledge, and nor should economists be seen as in any way culpable for the economic havoc that followed the implosion of the financial system in 2008.

Business as usual was returning. The familiar swagger was back. [Read more...]

Tax off for good behaviour

Over the weekend the CIH and the Resolution Foundation released a useful briefing called More than a roof. The focus is largely on the way in which financial incentives could be used to improve standards in the private rented sector.

The briefing provides a brief overview of the rapid growth of the private rented sector over the last few years. It then provides a decent summary of the key problems facing the sector, particularly the bottom end of the market where unscrupulous landlords lurk.

When the briefing moves on to policy it reviews what is currently being doing about standards under four headings – statutory obligations, licensing schemes, accreditation schemes, encouraging competition – before going on to look at what more could be done. Here there is an argument that modest and targeted increases in regulation are justified – in particular there is seen to be a strong case for creating greater transparency and uniformity in the standards that form the basis for licensing/accreditation schemes, more effective enforcement targeted at the worst landlords, and the greater regulation of letting agents.

However, despite noting the growth of direct regulatory intervention – notably in the devolved administrations and some London boroughs – the general tone of the report is rather sceptical. Greater regulatory intervention is not seen as the key to solving the problem. [Read more...]

The value of planning

Earlier this month there was a small flurry of comment in the media about the impact of planning on house prices (for example, here). The question was why house prices in Britain have grown faster than most other countries over the last forty years. A big chunk of the answer was “planning”, in the form of development planning and development control. If only the planning regime had been more lax more houses would have been built and the escalation in house prices would have been attenuated. The commentary was triggered by the imminent publication of a paper in the Economic Journal by Hilber and Vermeulen, which in turn is – I presume – a version of a paper that has been available as a SERC working paper for a couple of years.

This is the latest in an intermittent series of papers, largely generated by economists based at LSE/Reading, making similar sorts of points. The headline message is that the planning system is at the heart of the British housing supply problem. It is the primary cause of our sluggish housing supply response.

The “planning is the problem” position is making most of the running in this debate, and seemingly is never far from the heart of policy thinking.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that it is a position that I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for. It is too simplistic. It leaves out consideration of the influence and divergent interests of the range of stakeholders in the housing supply process.

Back in June, partially as a counter to this dominant strand of thinking, a report entitled The Value of Planning was published by the Royal Town Planning Institute. I’ve only just had a chance to read the report properly.

Publication through the RTPI might elicit a sceptical response – after all they would say that wouldn’t they? But that would be unfair. [Read more...]