The autumn statement


More political tactics than radical strategy and long-term vision as Osborne and Balls crossed swords

I never find these parliamentary statements particularly pleasant viewing. Too much testosterone-fuelled willy-waving and point-scoring for my liking.

Statistical spin on the National Infrastructure Plan

Frances Coppola complained to Puffles late last night that the National Infrastructure Plan (see here) was a very politicised document. In a quick scan at stupid-o-clock in the morning, I could see what she meant. The ‘mood music’ of the document was very much comparing the current administration with the previous one. The graph on page 6 was particularly striking, with no clear reason as to why you’d compare 2005-10 with 2011-13. For me it would have been better to have broken down the figures on a year-by-year basis – if anything to get a sense of changes over time. This and other data/statistics’ issues in the document may be something that some of you may wish to refer to/consult with the UK Statistics Authority, should you feel it merits such action.

Frances also noted that cuts to capital spending announced in the 2010 spending review (note the cuts to capital spending department-by-department here) were hardly mentioned. Compare that to the case made for infrastructure investment on pages 15-21.

The lack of infrastructure spending over the past couple of decades

The document concedes that there has been a lack of infrastructure spending across administrations. One of the things Labour I feel still needs to work out is why, over 13 years it failed to deliver on infrastructure investment over a number of key areas – in particular energy security, renewables, and the integrated public transport system that John Prescott lauded in the hot summer of 1997. My own take is that the continual ministerial reshuffles and reorganisation of government departments made it very difficult to get the long term stability needed to deliver on those commitments, even though arguably the money was there at the time.

Do you quench or choke off the demand?

On page 16 there are some striking forecasts on rising demand for road usage through the tables on rising congestion. It reminds me a programme I watched about The Joy of Logic. Basically there were lots of little political mind games you could play with it – until it got into the heavier maths. One of the arguments went: “Bad stuff is happening, and in order to stop bad stuff from happening, something must be done. Action X is a something, therefore action X will stop bad stuff from happening”.

One of the options civil servants have to give to ministers when presenting them with a series of options along with their recommendation, is the ‘do nothing’ option. With good reason too. Foreign policy is a useful context to look at in this. Why does the UK intervene in some countries and not others, even though what’s happening may be very similar?

In the context of road congestion, what are the other policy options that can deal with congestion directly, and what are the options that can deal with congestion indirectly? What will be the health and social impacts of say, building more roads? What sort of public infrastructure is likely to have the greatest impact on alleviating congestion and where?

Looking at policy issues beyond a departmental silo


The direct policy levers that the Department for Transport has on congestion are primarily financial or legislative. You can spend money on X, Y or Z, or you can legislate to restrict the driving of certain types of vehicles on certain roads. Think bus lanes or changing the maximum weight of freight lorries.

Indirect policy levers are the ones the DfT has limited influence over. One of the things many towns and cities have to cope with is ‘the school run’. When you give parents much greater ‘choice’ about which state schools to send their children to, as opposed to limiting their choice to very local schools, one of the consequences of that policy is increased traffic congestion. In Cambridge we have three of the biggest further education colleges in the county – Cambridge Regional College along with Long Road and Hills Road Sixth Form Colleges. I went to the open days of the latter two recently, and met students there who were from outside the county. This mirrors my experience at both institutions well over a decade ago. Now, there are very good reasons for having large catchments for further education colleges – not least because the smaller towns and villages may not have the course options or the facilities that the young people need.

Housing too is another indirect influence on transport congestion. Wouldn’t it be good if low-paid workers could live close to their places of work rather than having to commute long distances into city centres? When I was at school in the early 1990s in Cambridge, one of my teachers commuted in from Downham Market every day – a concept I found to be crazy at the time. (Actually, I still do). But then the Chancellor announced today that councils will be required to sell ‘expensive’ social housing to help fund the building of new social housing. What impact will that have in Central London? Will it turn it into an enclave for the stateless super-rich?

Under-16 pregnancies

This is something that confuddles politicians for a number of reasons. Policy-wise, the main levers have been held by the Department of Health. But again, this is an issue that you cannot simply throw money at, nor pass increasingly restrictive legislation on, in order to reduce the number of pregnancies experienced by girls under the legal age of consent.

As far as institutions go, children and young people fall primarily under the responsibility for the Department for Education. Thus if you want early intervention on the issue to reduce the risk of conception under 16, in principle one of the best places to start is in the schools. Yet sex and relationship education is an extremely controversial area where religious organisations lobby strongly. Not only that, religious organisations control the delivery of education – and SRE at a number of schools. If you are a minister in a constituency with a number of religious schools in, and you are in a volatile swing seat, are you going to be minded to bring in a policy that has sound evidence backing it but one that will upset the religious hierarchy?

You’ve then got the issues around women’s rights (which falls under the Government Equalities Office), and the issues around women in the media, which falls under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Finally, you’ve got issues around encouraging young women into further and higher education (Department for Business) and into employment where they won’t be discriminated against or harassed. (Department for Work and Pensions). And suddenly the policy waters look much less clear.

Back to Osborne’s plans

I’ve muted the sound on the tellybox because I can’t be doing with the ***Yah-Boo-Sucks*** coming from the green benches!

There are a number of things that some of Puffles’ followers have welcomed – such as the capital gains tax on foreign-owned homes. (Why it won’t come in until April 2015 I have no idea). Julian Huppert’s just mentioned the Cambridge City Deal and Osborne’s said that the deal is likely to be signed off in the very near future – which for me is splendid stuff as I know a number of friends in local councils in and around Cambridge have been working their socks off on that deal. Also too, the plans to toll the A14 have been dropped – something that many of Puffles’ Cambridgeshire followers have been campaigning long and hard over. There was also an announcement on advanced apprenticeships – something that I’d have expected Labour to have championed in a very big way in office but for whatever reason did not. To be fair to the Labour front benchers that came to visit Puffles not so long ago, they said that not prioritising young people that did not go to university was a mistake. (As if they come to visit Puffles rather than the local residents of Cambridge!)

Infrastructure funding in principle

Again, this is something I’m surprised previous administrations didn’t move on earlier on – perhaps stung by the huge losses investors took with the Channel Tunnel. Again, I don’t have a huge problem with the principle of having UK pension funds and insurers investing in infrastructure given that such funds from abroad are able to do the same. You only have to look at some of the signs on big construction sites or on the plaques following completion as to which funds stumped up the cash.

More cuts

This is the bit that worries me because of the impact on the front line. One of the criticisms made of the National Citizen Service program by some of you here was that it was too expensive and diverted much needed cash from existing local, successful and cheaper youth programs. Personally I don’t see it as a straight-forward either/or swap. I certainly don’t think central government should view it or ‘spin’ it that way either.

For me, local government has been caught between two negative but very different Whitehall/ministerial cultures over the past 15 years. The first under New Labour was one that had a very low regard for local government – reflected by the huge increase in targets and top-down management from Whitehall via regional government offices. (I started my civil service career in the latter in Cambridge – since closed). The other is the current regime under Eric Pickles, who made it his clear priority to roll back the activities (and funding) of local government – or ‘municipal socialism’ as he was once quoted.

Reducing statutory duties?

Because there are still lots of them – 1,335 according to the NAO in 2011. (See p4 here) Furthermore, according to the same document over 50% of local government funding is spent on social care – adult and children’s services. (P11).

One of the things that has been noticeable about not just this but previous administrations is how the division between old and young have been made more apparent by public policy choices. Free bus travel for pensioners vs more debt and few jobs for young people. Furthermore, the mood music from the media and some parts of society around young people has become absolutely toxic. Hence why more of us are speaking out in support of young people – such as Ben Goldacre here. I recently did similar at a council meeting, pulling up an elderly resident who I felt unfairly stereotyped young people as yobs.

Where is the positive long term vision from mainstream politics?

Especially for our young people? I’ve been going through some really intensive depressive mood swings of late because I’m struggling to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Not least because of my own frustrations at overcoming what feels like institutionalised apathy or resignation at a local level here. Perhaps that is why I find the gatherings of people at more ‘unstructured’ events so much more energising than death-by-expert-panellist conferences – as exemplified by this passionate take on the #ChangeHow event I was at.

This is what I want to see from politicians of all sides: A positive vision of the society you think we can become, and a coherent plan on how we’re going to get there. Irrespective of what’s contained in this document, I simply don’t think the current political systems, institutional structures and mindsets of mainstream politicians allow for them to articulate that vision, let alone set out how we might get there. Hence wanting to do something about it. Part of that challenge is working out what that something is.


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