What We Lose When We Lose A Local Authority: Imaginary Letter to An Optimistic Freelance Journalist Who Put The Case For University Rescue….

On Tuesday 21st August 2018, freelance Guardian journalist Louise Tickle, wrote an article with this heading: ‘Can A University Rescue a City When The Local Authority Fails?Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 11.33.31

Above: the local government changes from County Councils to Districts and Unitary Authorities 2019/2020

The Guardian article is about hope and, as such is great, but really, I realised, left me feeling that it was like PR for yet another  powerful institution, being enthused by young professional dystopian despair into ‘doing something’ which really probably can’t make the difference it’s expected to.

When you look at the recent PWC report on Local Authorities (consider how PWC and the group of top accountancy firms who are really writing and delivering government policy has been criticised? Remember how PWC accountants came under scrutiny for their multiple roles with Carillion?), then think about the hostile environment that local authorities are currently in when PWC say glibly in their latest report on Local Authorities:

‘Six out of ten survey respondents (local authorities), agree that councils should be more responsible for facilitating outcomes rather than delivering services, and a similar proportion now feel able to measure outcomes and assess impact which is a key to delivering a place based transformation’

This has never been voted on, democratically. 

Which means that the writer of the report (accountant) has taken it upon him or herself to write off the history of local authorities and write in a new technocratic support role for local government, a bit like the way that engineering and building information modelling has written out the architect and then back in as the Project Manager with all the responsibility and headaches but never, ever to succeed.

 

Back to Born to Fail (only this time it’s the institutions of after the second world who are labelled and black listed and excluded….)

Gulp! Cradle to cradle vacuum where noone can breathe….at any stage of life….

Knowing that local authorities provide a really important tier of representation and understanding of what service and delivery are I felt moved to change this ‘writing people and their systems and institutions off’ world.

Leaving aside the case of poor broken, Northampton Council and wishing the university and the very dynamic Vice Chancellor there well, I wanted to connect with the assumptions and history behind why an article about the loss of a layer of democratic accountability might be written in that way.

 

So I wrote an email to the journalist……imagining that some of the things I know and think and have learnt might produce a new kind of practical news that might change things for the better… the article below, though, has pics in it and more thought, so bear with me….

Hi Louise

I hope you’re blooming: I’ve just read your article about Northamptonshire: full of great info and ideas.
The problem for me is that universities have been colonised by big business, lobbies and the notion of what is ‘public money’ isn’t scrutinised carefully enough. When the direct grant from government to local authorities was abolished last year all I could see was a desire from the conservative government for a framework and structure of british society post brexit that is, actually, ideological, going back to Rees Moggism  a little england like a post modern form of feudalism sold to the world as marketing for heritage and export.  (William Rees Mogg argues for the re-introduction of the centripetal social bond which involves protection and service.)

 

 

Above: William Rees Mogg (and, as a youth) and victims of the government’s hostile environment, Anthony Bryan and Paulette Wilson who gave evidence before the Home Affairs select committee April 2018
The current (conservative) government offers the carrot of democratic accountability through the revised ‘business rate’  to a local ‘community’ but actually what they’re doing is telling us that we have to continue with Amazon warehouse internet capitalism and Sports Direct franchised corporates on the high street to finance the ’services’ that a ‘community needs.

 

 

Above Mike Ashley BIS Select Committee 2016: Rich Jeff Bezos and an image of a scottish Amazon workhouse August 2016
We all know that this kind of capitalism is filling our prisons and hospitals and streets with problems. What you don’t realise though, when you look at the success of schemes is that these are highly marketed and supported, in a sense, these projects have been given a golden media ticket for success when the underlying indicators of social distress across the life cycle can’t really be addressed by charitable do-gooding that is really allowing casino and drug culture in lifestyle and retail to be too powerful.
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When you understand how high streets work and currently interact with organised crime because of the removal of democratic accountability and standards of engagement through the local authority.
When you realise in the towns and cities surrounded by historic england, how they all have lots of nail bars, takeaways, charity shops, vape shops, gambling shops, mobile phone accessory providers,  the drive in to these cities by money that often comes from drugs and crime is the price our poorest people are paying on behalf of a system that is wrong.
So in this environment we have rentier absent landlords, bailiffs hunting shop owners with viable businesses priced out by ‘new’ companies in the organised crime economy and the franchise economy, empty shops and a pace of life speeded up by inertia capital pushing us all to consume, consume, consume things without any value or meaning.
Certainly, no Rees Moggian aristocratic centripetal social bond landowner to vassal.
If you take away democracy from action then nothing will ever change. If local authorities are phased out and killed by a media that tells everyone they’re ‘failing’ then the public can’t really see the detail of what’s happening, what could happen.
I think we need local solutions that come up from people who don’t want rubbish contracts, pretend views of ‘caring’ about others when they’re at university that are really about rich kids diving in on to projects in the UK or Africa before they go and become consultants and change absolutely nothing.
Less role play (more meaningful jobs that lead somewhere different).
With the notion of ‘civic engagement’ of universities we’re actually going back to a future before the welfare state where some people have more rights than others. Noblesse oblige. The problem is that now in universities as well as in the wider community you have an intergenerational ideas and asset lock created by the gig economy of core and peripeheral workers and the only opportunity (parents tell their children), is through the rentier economy and overcharging ‘foreigners’ for everything and blaming immigrants.
The problem is that it comes back to bite them when the home(s) they own and live in have to be sold to pay for what we call care by people we don’t connect with or train or pay properly. This is fuelling a dystopian working environment.
Inside the university, just as in society, there is little ability to change this and have insight, often the university is the provider of the local gig economy in jobs and services and maybe one of the stakeholders (like agencies, institutions and charities) that are creating their own assets out of other people’s lives that have no future.  In a university, those that already have, go on to be those who will have. We need to encourage scholarship rather than cheating through an unbearable pressure to be as good as the privileged from the credit card gambling temptation to get a first class essay farm degree.
What universities need to make clear is that there’s a point and a culture to education that is priceless.
What is needed in universities and society is a recognition that all ground in our society is equal and valuable but that there needs to be democratic accountability at the heart of activity we value. When we (who is we by the way?) talk about social mobility we need to understand just what’s happened to the people we deem our anti-social underclass.
Really we need to recognise the injustice we experience wherever we are is about repealing the rights of some people in society over the last thirty years and over privileging others to the point where they both meet (underclass pusher and over class consumer) on the doorstep over a takeaway. This is ugly.
It’s a consciously created dystopia though because the rights of some people go on being more visible and the injustices of others, (people who’ve been pushed out of social housing not allowed to ‘inherit’ or pass on a council house in the way that even tenant farmers, who diversify their earning potential by having other businesses) can.
Noone who lives in a council house was allowed to feel that they mattered or belonged after the sale of council houses. Council house ‘rights’ were from the very beginning time limited I think, because they were associated with socialism and urban rights that were threatening to more old fashioned rural rights.
When you begin your article with a medieval reference you’re not wrong to wonder.
I live in Nottingham and have learnt a lot about how we’re in this situation through looking at how local companies and communities have interacted since the second world war.
After the war there was a reconstruction of local, regional and national society on military lines, strangely and many ex military personnel were involved  in the planning of how land and the country should look. So the development of council housing, the estates, although influenced by garden city ideas, was also managed by post colonial ideas of exclusion, policing and control. What you may not have thought about is how this impacted the development of the economy both at the micro level and in terms of what we’ve done since then and where we are now.
In Nottingham, after the second world war we had communities of people, like elsewhere, who wanted a future: material things and hope.
We built a welfare state with housing, roads and education but excluded the people  who built that welfare state often from the benefits of that welfare state: education, housing, health and culture. We have diverse immigrant communities here but in the 1950’s we had what my dad called ‘that know it all’ Alan Sillitoe, who was tasked with the cultural golden ticket of writing about ‘working class Nottingham life’. To my family and me it was always too male, too white and too patronising, taking the brains of the working class and calling them sex, alcohol, gambling and failing.
And you couldn’t criticise it without attacking the establishment and the culture ironically, so nothing different was allowed to flourish.
Sillitoe didn’t mean to do what he did (his writing is good in the way that much writing is good) but like many working class grammar school kids were trained to write the gritty representation of ‘other lives’.
The writing that we really needed, the writing we still need, is the writing that is like a speech act, writing we didn’t get written or published or distributed, until the 1960’s and 70’s which was writing about everyone, simultaneously.
People in Nottingham, on the new council estates in the 1950’s and sixties,  with their police house at the top of the street wanted more for themselves and their families.
What optimistic working class people didn’t realise was that just through their numbers that they were going to both be the potential for the new markets but they would be excluded often as individuals from the new markets that took their money to expand.
You’ll know Bright House (now owned by Chinese company Vision Capital) as a seller of expensive furniture and household goods to people on low incomes. In the fifties and sixties in Nottingham, the version was Cavendish Woodhouse which had ex military personnel at their head (not surprising but in a way, it’s how that authority has been distributed subsequently) because it’s the kind of environment where some people are always good and privileged and some people are always bad and underprivileged.
Cavendish Woodhouse with its narrow mindset of what the capacity of the working class should be invested its profits in catalogues that became the group of Great Universal Stores and the profits of GUS were developed into a new project that would manage consumer data, access to credit.
GUS became CCN Systems then Experien. And often, the people who’d paid for the growth and development of this system were excluded from the new system. When you consider how important Experien have been in developing our economy (a House of Commons Select Committee described Experien as owning ‘the crown jewels’ of our assets) and when you consider how entrenched, unequal and lacking in complexity our view of history and society and people are increasingly becoming, I think we need to understand contested complexity away from all the vested interests and what actually was happening to people’s future life chances when the first data was selected and inputted.

 

 

Above: Gedling Pit:  reunited black miners from  Gedling pit, image of the miner’s strike and Gedling Pit now, Country Park today
Forty years on from the closure of the mines in Britain, often what were working class communities with a future have been recreated as playgrounds with country parks for the professional classes while the people who live there, often have what are seen as ‘dysfunctional’ ‘addicted’ and ‘shortened’ lives. We need to understand that need, neediness and shortened lives are though real are not genetic or even situational, they’ve been created by creating passive/inertia markets in gambling, (including the lottery that gives to the privileged from the poorest), consuming for its own sake while nothing permanent in terms of housing jobs or opportunity balances that consumption.

 

 

Above the  stereotypical image contrast between fit and healthy people on their cycles, obese and unhealthy ones in the city: access to transport, broadband is still metered unfairly in spite of massive investment
I worked as a fundraiser in 2016 for Sustrans because I walk, cycle catch the bus everywhere, had recently been made redundant and walked some of the cycle paths in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. Coincidentally, a friend was invited to exhibit some paintings at the Creative Community Centre
Sometimes you learn history and understand how things work through what happens to you, what you do. I had map of the Sustrans network throughout the UK at different periods: the National Cycle Network in 1995 and in 2016:

 

 

Above: the beginning of the national walking and cycling network 1995 and 2016 after  lottery and government and legacy funded Sustrans
We went to see Pat Murray’s exhibition and, as we travelled…sloooowly, from Nottingham to Ollerton on the bus, just how we were going into the past. You could see the old freight railway lines for the coal and goods to and from the pits and when we arrived you could see ‘poverty’, all the stereotypes that get written up for consumption on the high street. Bargain Booze, bookmakers, charity shop, takeaway, newsagent with the lottery fingers crossed. Apparently in early 2016 the average household in Ollerton was getting broadband speed of 2 megabytes per second.
And then I realised how interconnected the ideas of feudal britain are with the development of a permanently excluded underclass. Mining took so much from the people who lived and worked in those communities and gave back a pastoral idyll to the professional classes through the medium of exploiting the stuckness of a post industrial community.
The growth and development of the cycle network on disused mining and passenger railway lines through the ‘good idea’ of a lottery funded by the poorest coincided with the notion that previously public good data, like the census, could now be accessed by market forces.
By 1991 the market was inside the census and the very subjective category of limiting long term illness which has been applied more frequently to people who lived in rented and social housing without objective rationale became a way of changing perceptions of human value and worth. Instead of being social individuals these people became a lumpen group always associated with negativity.
I realised this when we went to Ollerton as I thought about the new walking, cycle paths and sites of special scientific interest.  The profile of the average walker or cyclist in this area and the walking and cycling paths in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.
The people paying for the development of these paths were the lottery ticket buyers who were tarred with negativity and excluded from joining the club of well dressed walkers and cyclists who dominated the paths around where they lived. Shamed by the thing that  enabled others to succeed.
The people who benefit from the cycle network are professional middle class. People who have adopted technology and whizz down the network enjoying the journey.
Just down the road from Ollerton, Fibre to Rural Nottinghamshire community interest company have dug their own fibre optic trenches and created 100 megabyte per second upload and download speeds. They’re very proud of their high skill community that banded together to do this fantastic job and have won Financial Times Village of the Year
But is this value and credit shared or shareable with their cousins in Ollerton just down the road? Does anyone care or think it should be done? Is this why such different life chances between people who live so close to each other are so very different’?
The towns and villages around Ollerton (in spite of forty years of european funding) are full of takeaways, gambling shops, cheap alcohol, have general relationships with everything and person as consumers rather than as active producers and agents.
What should have been done, what can be done?
The reason why ‘nothing’ material seems to have happened was because of the post war visions to ‘build’ but on particular types of terms without enough representation and community consultation. Often what has happened in our past and call ‘history’,  our past has really often happened the whim of a golden ticket holder but we can’t admit that truth.
Close the railways, the mines and build.  Who built most of the motorway road network?  Tarmac Roadstone that later, through its many acquisition successes, became Carillion.
The problems we have now are because we’ve allowed a privileged elite to play with democracy and build on our hopes and dreams.  I’m sure that universities have a role to play in our social reconstruction post brexit but perhaps what we really need is to understand is that all backgrounds, generations and ages need to feel they’ve got something worth contributing when there’s a big or planned change in society or at work. Change belongs to everyone, not just the few.
The disenfranchisement of too many people so that others can succeed is something that we really don’t argue with enough.
Can universities replace local authorities?
We need really good investigative journalism to wonder that. Who has decided that local authorities are over?
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