Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Anti-localism disease in social policy - from the Dieback Administration Civic Voice have cranked up their campaign against the government’s proposals to change the planning system. As with the creeping phenomenon of academies, the government’s attitude to planning seems to be peculiarly anti-localist, contradicting all the rhetoric about localism we’ve been hearing. ‘These proposals will mean neighbours will not be able to object to unsightly developments and big business will be able to install broadband boxes and other infrastructure without notifying the local council. Effectively removing the community voice…’ The effect could well be to erode rapidly the character of neighbourhoods that have taken shape over time in a considered, fundamentally democratic way. And it’s the erosion of the context for and everyday evidence of local democracy that most concerns me. Policies that treat schools and libraries as if they were challenges in a demolition ball arcade game are part of the same disdainful, destructive attitude towards the places where people live. Similarly, today we had the local government secretary reinforcing the creed that locally elected councils might not be trusted to take decisions on local services, so that central government might have to confiscate their right to do so. (Note his ludicrous use of the phrase 'hard-working residents'). And I can’t even begin to contemplate the impact of the widely-derided universal credit system on social support. I was in a meeting of local community and voluntary agencies this morning where there was a sense of desperation at the trauma and havoc to come. No doubt some official would call such forebodings ‘hysterical’, in very much the same way that, with reference to the latest Children’s Commissioner’s report on child sexual abuse, ‘a Government source said it was “difficult to overstate the contempt” with which ministers viewed the report’s conclusions.’ (Mail) The prime minister seems to have disagreed, but hey, that’s ministers for you, they're a jolly lot, never the kind of folk to take such an issue too seriously. I believe W. H. Auden kept a rotten apple on his mantlepiece at Oxford in the late nineteen thirties (no, a fruit, not a computer, dummy), to remind him of the condition of Europe. Today we have our own comparable living-dying image to remind us of the state of this country. The telegraph reported recently that ash dieback is ‘now beyond containment’. There are some kinds of devastation from which the potential for any kind of recovery is hard to identify, and the loss too hard to contemplate. Don’t be surprised if the present government, or what passes for a government, goes down in history as the Dieback Administration. Now I think of it, that might make a decent title for a film. Ken Loach, you’re needed.
Social exclusion and social policy: what has equality got to do with it? Browsing in a bookshop yesterday I noticed this simple introductory remark on the dust jacket of Joseph Stiglitz’s The price of inequality: ‘The impact of inequality on societies is now increasingly well understood - higher crime, health problems and mental illness, lower educational achievements, social cohesion and life expectancy.’ Inequalities reinforce social exclusion: it's hardly a contentious assertion, it's been around for a while, the data seem to support it, but is it really ‘well understood’? Understood as well as, for instance, the principle that people who are in positions of privilege, wealth and power will distort whatever they have to, in order to protect those positions? No it probably isn’t, not in the context of Westminster and the outlook of the influential Centre for Social Justice. This was made clear to me at the launch of the CSJ’s second ‘Breakthrough Britain’ programme the other day. The new programme addresses the same six themes as the first: family breakdown; economic dependency and worklessness; educational failure; drug and alcohol addiction; serious personal debt; and the role of the voluntary sector. The reports of the first programme, published in 2007, were sub-titled ‘policy recommendations to the Conservative Party’. So has no progress been made on these themes in the interim? Are social conditions worse, or better, in the CSJ’s eyes? Perhaps they are comparable. We know that inequalities have widened; but perhaps that doesn’t matter? The six themes strikingly avoid any reference to disadvantage experienced collectively, or to collective responses, thus reinforcing the notion that poverty and social exclusion are just experienced at the individual or household level and have to be addressed by the individual or household. I’m not sure why another bash at them is needed (I mean at the themes, not the people) nor why other forces that contribute to or might help reduce exclusion are not being considered. So when, after the introductory speeches, Titus Alexander asked, from the floor, where the principles of equalities might feature in the process, it seemed a wholly reasonable question and an opportunity for the chair to say something like ‘yes of course, it’s fundamental, obviously we didn’t have time to cover everything in our introduction, but…’ Not a bit of it. The idea that inequalities have anything to do with the problems of disadvantage and poverty in this country – or that addressing them might have anything to do with the solutions – was abruptly dismissed, on the grounds that the data do not necessarily explain why some countries have relatively high income inequality but fewer negative social indicators. (It might depend on which indicators you choose to look at I suppose). (Re-reading my post from a previous CSJ thematic launch, I note there was a pertinent question dismissed on that occasion too). A short while later, another voice from the floor challenged the chairs running the six inquiries to think long term about the potential to reduce the roles of the state to zero and encourage the voluntary sector to...

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