Grappling with big ideas

I’ve just published some thoughts on last night’s Bristol Festival of Ideas event over at

Last night I attended a cracking event to mark the relaunch Pelican books, organised under the auspices of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. The authors of four of the initial five volumes published by Pelican in its new guise were present to give a 15 minute overview of their book and participate in a Q+A. The panel comprised Ha-Joon Chang, Robin Dunbar, Orlando Figes, and Bruce Hood. It was unfortunate that Melissa Lane, the fifth author, was unavailable because that resulted in an all-male panel.

Ha-Joon Chang kicked off by wondering why, when they have opinions on all sorts of contentious topics about which they have no especial expertise, most people feel economics should be left to ‘experts’.

You can read the rest of the post here.

European Parliament – election debate

CEE 2013If you’re in or around Bristol on 28th April you might find the following event of interest. It’s being organised by Dr Diego Acosta Arcarazo, of the University’s Law School.

I’m not involved, but I’ll be there.

European Parliament elections 2014: join the debate

The European Parliament election is scheduled to take place on 22 May 2014 and the University of Bristol is hosting a political debate on Europe between the first candidates from each of the five most voted parties in the South West: the Conservatives, UKIP, Liberals, Labour and Green parties. You will have the opportunity to ask the candidates questions on key issues such as the future role of the UK in the EU, free movement of citizens or economic matters. [Read more…]

Mixed messages

4604466137_65e4ae185d_nYesterday I had a meeting with someone about a thing. Before we got started my interlocutor looked at me rather accusingly and, apropos of nothing at all, said “Someone tells me you’re a member of the Liberal Democrats”. This was a decidedly unexpected turn of events.

I felt obliged to concede that, yes, I was a member. Indeed, not only am I a member I am a Federal Conference rep. Some might even suggest I’m a grassroots activist. Grassroots, certainly. But activist might be putting it a bit strongly.

I felt compelled to stutter and stumble that I’m not one of those “Liberal Democrats” that you hear so much about – the nasty yellow Tories. I’m one of the nice ones who still believe in the balancing liberty, equality and community; that no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity; and all that sort of thing. The ones who think that every good thing the party has done in Government has to be set alongside its enthusiastic support for Tory policies that are an affront not only to liberal democracy but also, all too frequently, to good sense and rational thought.

Alas, my plea of guilty to the charge of Liberal Democracy elicited a look from my accuser that mingled disappointment with disgust. However, politeness dictated it was quickly banished.

[Read more…]

George Ferguson’s Vision for Bristol: A response

Picture of GeorgeLast night George Ferguson gave his first Mayoral State of the City address in the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building. This launched both the Mayor’s Vision for Bristol and the consultation on the local authority budget.

Following the Mayor’s presentation there were brief responses from Alexandra Jones from Centre for Cities, Tony Travers from LSE London, and me. We only had five minutes each. Below is the text to accompany my presentation. Delivery didn’t quite match the text because I was editing down to 5 minutes. You can listen to the whole event here for the next few days. As usual, I win the “who can talk the fastest” competition.


We are now marking the first anniversary of our first mayoral election. The occasion is provoking plenty of reflection. Not just locally, but also nationally and internationally.

When the city voted for a mayor in 2012 it was voting for a leader with greater visibility. It is fair to say that we have got one. George is much more high profile – in person, in the media, on Twitter – than previous Council Leaders. George may not yet have the name recognition of Boris … or Madonna … but he’s on the way. If electing a Mayor was primarily about moving to the era of city leader as celebrity then that is a task we can mark as largely complete.

But visibility was never an end in itself. It was a component of reconnecting city leadership with the people. It had the aim of increasing engagement with local politics and revitalising local democracy. It spoke of aspirations for more focused and consistent leadership. It spoke of breaking away from the deadlock and instability that were perceived to afflict city leadership under previous governance models.

Having voted to move to the elected mayor model there is now limited scope for changing to a different model of local government. So there is little point rehearsing old debates about whether it was the right decision. Now is the time to take stock of whether we are moving in the expected direction. [Read more…]

Keeping up with the Bristol Bloggerati

funny man working in the cloudBristol has a lively bunch of bloggers. Keeping up with what’s being posted can be a bit of a struggle.

We now have a new resource in the form of Bristol Blogs brings together more than 80 different feeds from bloggers in and around Bristol, blogging about life and events in the city and about a huge range of other topics. The site is already up and running. It is currently carrying over 3,500 posts.

My posts appear under the academia and politics headings. But you know where to find me already. Why not visit the site and find out what everyone else is talking about?

Who is social housing for, and who should it be for?

Yesterday I participated in a consultation event organised by Bristol City Council. it was designed to start a debate locally about the revision of social housing allocations policy. My talk, which ranged rather more broadly than simply allocations policy, is a bit too long to include in a blog post, so I have bunged it on to Scribd. It can be accessed below. [Read more…]

On local governance and elected mayors

On Friday we published a report on the prospects for an elected mayor in Bristol. It is the first report from the Bristol Civic Leadership Project. The prospects report was based primarily on views collected from around Bristol prior to the mayoral election in November. It drew on the respondents to the Citizens’ Panel, a survey of civic leaders, and workshop discussions with stakeholders. The aim of the report was to set out a baseline of information on people’s expectations for the arrival of mayoral governance and, where possible, on the back of that evidence to draw some lessons about avoiding pitfalls associated with changing governance. It aimed to do no more nor less than that.

309064910_68b0c541deThe broad message of the report is that many people were not hugely positive about the performance of the city council under the Leader and Cabinet governance model used prior to the move to an elected mayor. Many were therefore positive about the prospects of the move to a mayor – they were expecting the governance change to have a positive impact on the governance of the city and on the city itself.

The main group who took a different stance were city councillors. Councillors tended to be more likely to be positive about the (then) existing model, and correspondingly more sceptical about the benefits of the arrival of an elected mayor.

I noticed that there was a bit of negative comment about this report on Twitter on Saturday. I thought it would be worth reflecting on some of that comment. [Read more…]

Economists in reflective mood

Next weekend Bristol will host the Festival of Economics, organised under the auspices of the Festival of Ideas. The programme for the Festival of Economics has been assembled by Diane Coyle of Enlightenment Economics. It brings together economic journalists, applied academic economists, and economists in the think tank world who seek to talk directly to policy makers. Some are relatively mainstream in their orientation. Some are decidedly more heterodox.

The arrival of the festival coincides with my finally getting the chance to finish Diane’s recent edited collection What’s the use of economics? Teaching the dismal science after the crisis (WTUOE). The book arises out of a seminar held back at the beginning of the year, which I would dearly have loved to have attended. Unfortunately it clashed with teaching my economics of public policy unit. The book comprises 22 brief chapters giving a range of perspectives on how economists should respond to the deficiencies exposed by the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

At least some parts of the economics community are in reflective mood. [Read more…]

The future of local democracy

Participation in representative democratic processes at local level is on the wane. Not just in Britain but in several other western democracies. There is plenty of cause to reflect on why that might be, and what might be done about it. How can more local people become engaged in decision making about their area? Without change it is easy to envisage – without getting too apocalyptic about it – local government facing a crisis of legitimacy at some point in the not too distant future. Equally importantly, local government is facing unprecedented challenges. Citizens need to understand the dilemmas and competing demands. Wise leaders will draw on resources and ideas from across communities. More inclusive political processes are needed to achieve this.

Last week I chaired an event at the University of Bristol on The Future of Local Democracy as part of Thinking Futures, the Festival of Social Sciences and Law. The panel of four speakers engaged with a broad range of issues relating to the nature of local democracy, accountability, and representation. [Read more…]

Challenging Corporate Coffee

Thursday’s G2 magazine featured an article about the imminent arrival of Costa coffee in Totnes in Devon. John Harris recounts the opposition to the move among local independent coffee retailers and local residents. Totnes has a distinctive culture: people fear that Costa will undermine it. This act of resistance to the aggressive expansion strategy of this particular corporation is being replicated across the country. Communities are fighting invasion by Costa and its ilk. But they are usually losing. Will Totnes be any different?

The article clearly hit a nerve. At the moment it has been shared 1,554 times on Facebook, tweeted 371 times, and received well over 700 comments. It seems there is a desire to resist the homogenisation of the High Street. But that isn’t necessarily sufficient to stop it happening.

Near to my place in Bristol we’ve had similar experiences. [Read more…]