Highlights of the SPEL conference 2017

This year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference, held in Edinburgh’s COSLA building, focused on Anticipating and preparing for change and covered a range of topics from the impact of Brexit on planning and environmental law in Scotland to how planning and planners can help tackle the growing housing crisis. Delegates were given the opportunity to reflect on the challenges for planning and environmental law in Scotland as well as the great opportunities the next few years may present to the profession.

Bringing the planning profession together

The conference provided an opportunity for professionals from across the planning and law professions to come together to discuss some of the key challenges to their profession going forward. While Brexit was high on the list of discussion topics, the possibilities for reform, and the opportunities for practitioners to learn and share their experiences and knowledge with one another, for what is now the 26th year of SPEL, continued to be at the heart of the conference discussions.

Is planning fit for purpose?

Chaired by Stuart Gale QC, from event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers, the conference was opened by Greg Lloyd who addressed the issue of the “distinctiveness” of the Scottish planning system, asking the question, “Is planning fit for purpose?” In the context of Brexit and with the benefit of years of planning knowledge, Greg discussed the performance of planning and how its modernisation is equipping planners to deal with challenges in the future.

The Rt. Hon Brian Wilson, former UK energy minister, spoke next on the challenges energy targets are posing not only for environmental lawyers and practitioners but also for planners. He discussed how the drive to achieve energy targets both in renewable and traditional energy generation needs to be tackled as much by planners as environmentalists and politicians. He also highlighted the need to meet the growing demand for energy by helping to reduce energy use and tackle wider socioeconomic issues relating to energy in Scotland.

Brexit – the impact on planning

The morning session was brought to a close firstly by Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers who spoke about the intricacies, expectations, challenges and potential opportunities for environmental law and practitioners in Scotland following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that the essential elements of environmental law are retained within any future UK or Scottish legislation and that a system is created which provides an opportunity for robust scrutiny and maintenance of standards, specifically in relation to the consistency of application. She also discussed some of the ways in which existing principles and policies can be future proofed. Following on from Laura, Robert Sutherland gave an overview of recent developments in community right to buy in Scotland.

The morning session also included a case law roundup which reviewed and discussed recent significant cases including: RSPB vs Scottish Ministers (2017); Douglas vs Perth and Kinross Council (2017); and Wildland ltd vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

Delivering new housing

The afternoon opened with a panel session, where speakers tackled the million-dollar question of whether planning reform will assist in the delivery of new homes to help tackle the growing housing crisis. Speakers from Renfrewshire council, the University of Glasgow, house builder Taylor Wimpey, and Rettie & Co. discussed a range of topics from barriers to the delivery of homes and infrastructure, to the setting of national housebuilding targets, as well as the challenge of building the right sort of housing, in the right place at the right cost, and the role of local authorities in meeting housing need.

The afternoon session included a second case law roundup which saw review and discussion of recent significant cases including: Taylor Wimpey vs Scottish Ministers (2016); Angus Estates (Carnoustie) LLP vs Angus Kinross Council (2017); and Hopkins Homes Ltd. vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

The role of planning in driving inclusive growth

The conference was closed by self-professed “economic agitator” Ross Martin, who discussed the role of planning more widely within Scotland’s economy and its role as an agent for driving inclusive growth. He stressed the need for planners and other related professionals to look at the “bigger picture” when it comes to planning, using the system as the engine for growth and development, rather than as a barrier, and challenged those in the room to think creatively about how planning can play a role in strategic, but inclusive growth in Scotland going forward.

Some of the key points of discussion to come out of the conference were:

  • Planners, and planning lawyers need to recognise the importance of the wider social and economic context on their decision making, even if that decision only relates to one single building
  • Brexit is providing a lot of uncertainty and raising a lot of questions about the future of planning and environmental law in Scotland and the UK as a whole, but it may provide an opportunity for practitioners to take the lead and shape the system in a way that better suits current needs
  • There is scope and appetite, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to create a specialist planning and environmental law court to help scrutinise decisions and fill the void left by the EU in terms of accountability and implementation of environmental law, practice and strategy going forward

SPEL Journal is a bi- monthly journal published by the Idox Information Service. The journal is unique in covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. Each issue contains articles on new legislation, significant court cases, expert comment on key planning appeals, government circulars and guidance, ombudsman cases and book reviews. SPEL deals with matters of practical concern to practitioners both in the public and private sector. Please contact Christine Eccleson at christine.eccleson@idoxgroup.com if you are interested in learning more about the journal or our subscription rates.

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Denmark’s digital ambassador: should the UK be following suit?

 

By Steven McGinty

On 26 January, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they would be appointing the world’s first ‘digital ambassador’ to act as the nation’s representative to major technology companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

At a conference on the future of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, explained that:

Denmark must be at the forefront of technological development. Technological advances are making such a great impact on our society that it has become a matter of foreign policy. I have therefore decided to announce the appointment of a digitisation ambassador.

In a follow up interview with Danish newspaper Politken, Mr Samuelsen expressed his belief that multinational technology giants “affect Denmark just as much as entire countries”. He highlighted the examples of Apple and Google whose market values are so large that if they were countries they would only narrowly miss out from inclusion in the G20 – the global forum for cooperation between the world’s 20 major economies.

As a result of this economic strength, together with tech firms’ impact on the everyday lives of citizens, Mr Samuelsen argues that the technology sector should be treated as a form of ‘new nation’, which Denmark must develop closer relationships with.

Cooperation between nation states and the technology sector

Technology companies are becoming involved in activities that were once reserved for nation states. For example, Mr Samuelsen’s Liberal party accepts donations in Bitcoin – an online currency which challenges the state’s role as the only issuer of legal tender. And Microsoft have signed a partnership agreement with the French Ministry of Education to provide teacher training, in order to prepare teachers for running special coding classes.

The technology industry argues that it is better placed than national governments to provide effective digital services, at cheaper prices. In terms of national security, computer engineering expert and academic, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, argues that this is probably the case. Mr Ganascia highlights that Google and Facebook have vast image databases that enable them to use facial recognition software far better than any national security service. Therefore, countries have started working with technology companies on a variety of crime and public safety issues.

Citizens are also spending greater amounts of time on social media platforms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Samuelsen stated that more than half of the world’s data has been created in the past two years (much of this from major platforms such as Facebook). This trend has implications for the privacy of citizens and the spreading of false information, a phenomena that has been labelled ‘fake news’. These issues are fundamentally important for citizens and nation states, and are likely to increase cooperation between countries and the technology sector.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Although Denmark will be the first country to introduce a digital ambassador, another government has made a similar appointment. In January, Dr Tobias Feakin was appointment as Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. His role focuses on cyber-security, but also includes issues such as censorship and promoting internet access. At this stage, it’s unclear whether Dr Feakin will have direct contact with technology companies and whether this relationship will involve discussions over economic issues such as taxation.

Is a digital ambassador necessary?

Not everyone, however, is buying into the appointment of a government representative focused solely on digital issues. Technology journalist, Emma Woollacott, believes that it’s a ‘terrible idea’.

According to Ms Woollacott, Denmark already has a good relationship with technology companies, highlighting that Facebook has recently announced plans to build a new data centre in Odense, creating 150 new permanent jobs. These views may have some merit, as Mr Samuelsen has confirmed that the deal between the Foreign Ministry and Facebook was the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work.

Ms Woollacott also argues that Denmark is setting a worrying precedent by equating a private company to a nation state.  In her view, the importance of the technology sector could have been acknowledged through hiring knowledge staff, rather than granting it a ‘unique political status’.

However, Professor Jan Stentoft, who researches the insourcing of technological production to Denmark, believes creating the ambassadorial post is a good idea. He explains:

We have much to offer these companies, but Denmark is a small country, and we obviously need to make ourselves noticed if we are to attract them to the country.

Marianne Dahl Steensen, CEO of Microsoft Denmark, also welcomed the creation of a digital ambassador position, but did acknowledge that the company ‘can hardly be equated with a nation’.

Should the UK introduce a digital ambassador?

By introducing a digital ambassador, Mr Samuelsen is taking a pragmatic approach to ensure Denmark is a key player in the international digital economy, as well as attempting to manage the impacts of an increasingly digital society.

Although appointing an ambassador for the technology sector poses philosophical and ethical questions, the UK should closely monitor how this new role develops and the potential benefits (and challenges) it brings for Denmark. In particular, if the new role is able to improve dialogue between technology companies and the security services on matters such as privacy, or help address the sector’s need for digitally skilled workers, then maybe introducing a digital ambassador is something worth exploring.


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Should the UK introduce a tax on sugar?

An assortment of liquorice allsorts sweets.

by Stacey Dingwall

Recent months have seen two enquiries to our Ask a Researcher service for evidence on sugar consumption in the UK. Namely: should this be taxed?

Sugar has become somewhat of a villain in the UK, with magazine articles, research and governments all telling us that we should be greatly reducing, or even eradicating completely, our consumption of added sugars in particular. The week beginning 30th of November even saw the first National Sugar Awareness Week, part of a campaign to encourage the government to establish a sugar reduction programme in the UK. However, is a ‘sugar tax’ really necessary?

Sugar consumption: a public health issue?

According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), absolutely. Last month, they published a review of how to tackle obesity in the UK, which included the introduction of a sugar tax. The report notes that, according to the latest forecasts, half of all adults in the UK are expected to be classed as obese by 2050. Key to reversing this trend, it is argued, is to tackle issues around diet and nutrition among children, who are now spending double the amount of time per day in front of screens than children in 1995 (something that has been shown to increase cravings for food and drink, but not for nutritionally sound items). Alongside other developed nations, the UK is also seeing an ever increasing rate of consumption of high-sugar carbonated drinks.

While the RSPH recommends placing restrictions, or ending, the use of advertising and sponsorship by junk food and drinks companies around family and sporting events, it also argues that this is not enough to tackle the country’s obesity problem. The RSPH supports the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks of 20%, or 20p per litre. Their report highlights evidence which suggests that this could prevent or delay around 200,000 cases of obesity per year, and points to the experience of Mexico, who introduced a tax of 10% at the start of 2014. During that year, sales of sugary drinks declined by 6% overall, and by 9% among those living in the most deprived areas of the country (the demographic group most likely to be obese).

What does the government think?

After a delay, the UK government published Public Health England’s (PHE) review of the evidence for action with regards to sugar reduction in October. The report:

  • agrees that too much sugar is consumed in the UK
  • favours a reduction in advertising to children
  • recommends the introduction of a tax on full sugar soft drinks of 10-20%

This, combined with a range of other measures, it is argued, could save the NHS £500 million per year. The PHE recommendation was also supported by the House of Commons Health Committee, in their recently published Childhood obesity – brave and bold action report. Having heard evidence from parties including Sustain and Jamie Oliver, a key figure in the campaign for the introduction of a sugar tax, the Committee recommended that such a levy should be introduced at 20%, in order to achieve maximum impact.

The Prime Minister, however, is still not convinced, stating that he believes there are “more effective” ways of tackling obesity. The government is due to publish a strategy on childhood obesity in the New Year.

What does the evidence say?

A number of countries have implemented a form of taxation on sugar or saturated fats. These include:

  • a tax on saturated fats in Denmark
  • Finland’s tax on sweets, ice cream and soft drinks
  • Hungary’s public health product tax
  • France’s tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages

According to a review of using price policies such as these to promote healthier diets by the World Health Organization, food pricing policies are feasible, and can influence consumption and purchasing patterns as intended, with a significant impact on important dietary and health-related behaviour. Crucially, however, the same review notes a lack of formal evaluation in this area.

A report published earlier this year by the activist group Taxpayers’ Union of New Zealand, Fizzed out: why a sugar tax won’t curb obesity,  questioned the validity of nutrition related taxes. Reviewing the experience of Mexico, they suggested that the reduction in consumption of sugary drinks following the introduction of an excise tax of one peso per litre in January 2014 had been overplayed.

It’s also the case that the Danish tax on saturated fats was repealed by the government after only one year. This was due to a number of economic impacts that quickly became apparent after the tax was implemented, and resulted in plans for similar taxes to be abandoned. In fact, fat consumption in Denmark has been on a downward trend for some time now, therefore no tax incentive was required. And according to the Danish minister of finance, “to tax food for public health reasons [is] misguided at best and may be counter‐productive at worst”.

Whether the UK Prime Minister will be swayed on this matter remains to be seen. It’s likely that a ‘sugar tax’ will continue to be deemed too politically sensitive to introduce, especially as one in five people continue to live below the poverty line.


Related reading
Child obesity: public health or child protection issue?

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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Increasing participation in sport and physical activity

by Stacey Dingwall

Our latest member briefing focuses on increasing participation in sport and physical activity in the UK, looking at successful examples of increasing activity and ways in which policymakers are trying to overcome the barriers to participation in sport and physical exercise. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

Physical activity levels in the UK

Despite the longstanding and valued position in British society of sport, getting people of all ages involved in sport and physical activity has become increasingly challenging. While current UK guidelines for aerobic activity recommend that adults aged 19 and over should spend at least 150 minutes per week in moderately intensive physical activity, the latest statistics on physical activity from the British Heart Foundation indicate that:

  • Only 67% of men in England and Scotland report meeting recommended levels of physical activity, and only 59% in Northern Ireland and 37% in Wales;
  • Women are less active than men in all UK countries, with 58% reporting meeting recommended levels in Scotland, 55% in England, and 49% in Northern Ireland and 23% in Wales;
  • Physical activity levels vary by household income; in England in 2012, 76% of men in the highest income quintile reached recommended levels, compared to 55% of men in the lowest income quintile.

The implications of inactivity

Low levels of physical activity not only have health implications, but also economic – in the UK, inactivity has been estimated to cost the NHS £1.1billion (Allender, 2007) with indirect costs to society bringing this cost to a total of £8.2billion.

Government action

Our briefing highlights the range of policies and interventions implemented by the UK and devolved governments to try and increase participation in sport and physical activity among the population. These include the Department of Education’s £150m per year Primary PE and Sport Premium Fund; and Scotland’s sport strategy for children and young people, Giving Children and Young People a Sporting Chance.

Good practice – home and abroad

In addition, the briefing profiles successful interventions at the community level, such as Let’s Get Fizzical, a physical activity programme for young people delivered by StreetGames in collaboration with Birmingham City Council. International examples of good practice are also highlighted, including the Active Healthy Kids Canada programme and the North Karelia Project in Finland.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To get a flavour of the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

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The UK digital economy: how can the government support digital businesses?

By Steven McGinty

Last month, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s digital economy. Iain Wright MP, the Chair of the Committee, explained that:

Digital technology is rapidly changing the economic landscape in which firms operate. Nothing short of a digital and tech revolution is taking place, with new entrepreneurs and business models emerging and existing businesses having to adapt quickly to keep pace.”

The inquiry will focus on three areas:

  • Government actions affecting businesses in the digital economy;
  • how to maximise the opportunities and overcome challenges in the sector;
  • how the sector can contribute to improving national productivity.

The BIS Committee is asking for submissions from those involved in the digital economy, including digital businesses and companies hoping to benefit from technology.

 Why should the government support the digital economy?

Innovate UK expect that, by 2015, the UK digital economy will account for 10% of GDP. Tech City UK report that the sector employs 1.5 million people (about 7.5% of the total workforce); although this is expected to increase by 5.4% by 2020. In 2013-2014, 15% of all the companies formed were digital businesses. Most were based outside of London (74%) and nearly all were SMEs (98%). The majority (90%) of digital companies expect revenues to grow within the next year.

Technology clusters

Technology clusters play an important role in the UK’s digital economy. There are 21 clusters across the UK, with expertise ranging from software development to marketing and advertising. The majority of digital businesses consider themselves part of a cluster (65%). Bournemouth has the fastest growing digital cluster, with a 212% increase in the number of companies formed since 2010. Its specialism is digital marketing and advertising.

This growth suggests specific focus should be given to technology clusters. Tech City UK found that a third of digital companies highlighted access to funding as a challenge, particularly outside of London and the South East.  One suggestion offered by Tech City UK is that businesses need to take advantage of European funding where possible.

Other forms of support could include: providing fast and accessible broadband; access to a pool of skilled employees; suitable workspace, particularly in the South East; and business and mentoring advice.

Digital Economy Strategy 2015-2018

At the beginning of the year, Innovate UK set out a strategy to support UK businesses in getting the most out of digital technology. It sets out five main objectives:

  • Encouraging digital innovators
  • Focusing on the user
  • Equipping the digital innovator
  • Growing infrastructure, platforms and ecosystems
  • Ensuring sustainability.

Within the strategy, actions are put forward for how these goals will be achieved. For instance, to ensure sustainability, Innovate UK would work closely with UK research councils to encourage cross-disciplinary academic collaboration and help connect it to real-world business needs. If even some progress is made with each of these objectives it would be hugely beneficial for the UK digital economy.

Innovation centres – the Digital Catapult

The Digital Catapult is a national centre that aims to accelerate the UK’s best digital ideas to the marketplace, in order to create new products, services and jobs. It was established in 2014 by Innovate UK and is based in the Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross. There are also three local centres in the North East and Tees Valley (NETV), Brighton, and Yorkshire.

The Digital Catapult centres focus on the challenges associated with: closed organisational data; personal data; creative content; and the internet of things (IoT). The centres are involved in a number of projects, including IoTUK, which has been launched as part of a £40 million government investment in the internet of things (the use of networks to allow the exchange and collection of data from everyday objects, such as fridges). The programme aims to increase the adoption of high quality IoT technologies and services throughout business and the public sector.

Regina Moran, CEO at Fujitsu UK&I, notes that:

The IoT has the potential to turn ideas in a hyper-connected world into fully realised digital services but it has challenges ahead and it’s encouraging to see the Government investing in its development.”

 Regulation

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has managed to convince the European Commission (EC) to review the VAT regime for tech start-ups, arguing that it punished British entrepreneurs. The regime, which was implemented in January, forced companies to pay tax in every country they traded in rather than their headquarters. It also eliminated a £81,000 threshold for which companies have to register for VAT duty.

However, the Commission has recognised that this was adversely affecting small businesses. Therefore, measures such as the reintroduction of the VAT threshold and a single registration scheme for cross-border taxes, will be included in the Commission’s consultation.

The UK government’s approach shows a commitment to providing a competitive business environment and a single European market in digital services. It’s likely that most digital businesses would support the government’s approach.

Concluding remarks

The upcoming BIS Committee inquiry will provide an opportunity to reflect on the government’s approach so far. Although evidence confirms that the digital economy has been growing, there may be areas that the UK is failing to capitalise on. In a highly competitive globalised economy, it’s important that the UK exploits any strategic advantage, ensuring that innovative ideas are brought to the market quickly.

The inquiry will also provide an opportunity for a dialogue between the government and the private sector. This increased collaboration can only be good news for the UK’s digital businesses.

Here at Idox, we take an active interest in the future of the digital economy and eagerly await the Committee’s findings.


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IDOX Plc announced on 8 October 2015 that it had acquired the UK trading arm of Reading Room Ltd. Reading Room, founded in 1996, is a digital consultancy business with a focus on delivering websites and digital services that enable its customers to make critical shifts into digital business and client engagement. It has an international reputation for its award winning and innovative approaches to strategic consultancy, design, and technical delivery.

e-Estonia: leading the way on digital government

By Steven McGinty

 “We should talk about a digital-embracing government, not e-government”

These are the words of Andres Kütt, system architect and adviser to the Estonian Information Security Authority. By this he means that the term ‘e-government’ implies a separation between digital and government. So, instead he advocates the term ‘digital-embracing government’ as it highlights that digital should be embedded within all aspects of governance.

Why does the Estonian view matter?

In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.

The ‘core’ of the Estonian model 

  • Electronic ID cards

Key to the Estonian approach is the use of an electronic ID card. As of 2012, more than 1.1 million people have ID cards. The Estonian population have been described as ‘tech savvy’ and ‘pragmatic’. This could be the reason ID cards have been successful there, whereas in the UK concerns about threats to privacy have always led to their rejection.

The ID card acts as both an identity document and, within the European Union, a travel document. It provides a way to verify citizens using online services. The card is secure, and is used for activities such as internet banking, participating in e-elections, and buying public transportation tickets. Mobile phones can also act as an ID card, allowing citizens to confirm their identity online.

  • Population Database

The Estonian government has a national register (called the Population Database).  This provides a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia. Similarly to the use of ID cards, these forms of large scale database are unlikely to be accepted by the British public. For instance, concerns were raised when it was suggested that a Scotland-wide ID database, which would have included records from 120 public bodies, could be introduced.

Estonian digital government services

  • e-Elections

Since 2005, Estonians have been able to participate in e-elections using their ID card or their mobile ID. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In the 2011 Parliamentary elections, 140, 846 people voted online, representing 24% of the eligible voting population. Recent elections have also shown that online voting has had a positive effect on voter turnout.

However, security concerns have been raised over Estonia’s voting system. Researchers from security firm SafelyLocked have suggested that the software has insufficient security safeguards to protect it from hackers.

  • e-Health record

As of January 2010, Estonia’s citizens have been given access to their medical records via a medical information system. It contains information such as diagnoses and doctor’s visits and is accessed using the ID card.

What could the UK learn from Estonia?

In a recent presentation, Andres Kütt was the first person to admit that you can’t simply take the Estonian approach and implement it into another country. However, he does suggest that methodologies used by Estonia can be adopted by other countries to help them come to their own digital solution. There are also wider lessons that can be drawn from the Estonian experience.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) have an ongoing arrangement with the Estonian government – a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 committed the two countries to working together to advance digital public services. The GDS highlights that a lot of Estonia’s success comes from the fact that they started with no pre-existing infrastructure. This means that they were able to avoid legacy problems, such as the challenge of integrating older and newer systems.

However, Pete Herlihy of the GDS, reported that on a visit to Estonia he realised that:

  • The government needs to publish details of the data it holds for each of their systems
  • The government needs to publish an agreed set of open data and messaging standards and protocols, to allow easier communication between systems.

Final thoughts

The eventual solution for the UK will have to be different to that of Estonia. Yet it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.

Here are just a few final facts about the success of Estonia.

  • 98% of banking transactions in Estonia are conducted through the internet
  • In 2013, over 95% of income tax declarations were processed through the e-Tax Board
  • Cabinet meetings have become paperless sessions using a web-based document system.

Further reading

IDOX is a market-leading developer and provider of a broad range of software solutions for UK and international public sector organisations – especially local government. These solutions are designed to help clients comply with regulatory requirements, as well as enable online delivery of public services.

Devolution, for and against: a tale of many cities

Image: The Dickens Museum, by Peter Curbishley via Creative Commons

Image: The Dickens Museum, by Peter Curbishley via Creative Commons

By Rebecca Riley

In his classic quote, Dickens describes a time of great change, and the conditions which were forcing that change: industrial and technological revolution; growth in knowledge and education; oppressed conditions of the working class and lack of hope within a time of great progress. In France this led to revolution, in Britain it led to eras of philanthropy, growth in a new middle class, and extensive governmental and democratic reform within a broader struggle by the establishment to retain power.

Today, we are faced with similar conditions: huge technological change; growing inequality; uneven distribution of power and funds – but the demand for change is coming from the cities and local leadership, not from an oppressed working class. This is creating a resurgence in the call for greater devolution, which has gathered speed since the end of the 20th century. So what are some of the arguments for and against devolution, and what will be the impact?

The ‘for’ argument

Currently Britain has a patchwork of devolved powers, with devolved nations having greater control over local issues. Here local government already makes decisions on local issues and this ensures discussions and decisions are made at the appropriate spatial level. However, unlike other countries such as Canada, this is a combined self- and shared- rule, with central government still able to legislate in the devolved areas (in practice they don’t without the consent of the devolved government). This does, however, lead to one of the greatest arguments for further devolution, as England does not have a similar structure and there is no opportunity for any self-rule. In demographic terms, areas such as Manchester and Wales have similar populations, but Wales has much greater control over its own destiny.

This concentration of effort can streamline the decision making process as decisions are made by the people who know the issues and can implement the solutions. National government is freed up to discuss issues of national importance and the ‘bigger picture’. There is also the potential that decision making at a local level is more effective, because of the greater belief in a common goal by decision makers as they focus on the enhancement of their own local area.

Currently the devolved nations don’t have their own tax raising powers and are still funded via a block grant from central government. Greater powers over taxation could lead to greater competition and ensure money raised in an area is reinvested in that area. However, this could also continue to widen the gap between rich and poor areas.

The ‘against’ argument

One of the arguments against devolution is cost. Devolving decision making from a central system, which has been doing this effectively for a long time, would increase the time taken for decisions and the associated structure changes needed to implement them. And there is a possibility of constitutional instability. What happens if the city or regional government clashes with national government? How does this get resolved? Who do we appeal to? National government?

Current devolution structures are not all the same. Scotland has control over policing, Northern Ireland doesn’t. In Wales some powers are devolved to the assembly not the government, so structures, powers and legislation varies, and therefore the devolved governments are not all equal. This uneven devolved decision making can also lead to a postcode lottery. One of the starkest examples of this is university tuition fees, where a student in England looks at debts in excess of £27k for fees, while Scotland has not introduced them.

Many also see devolution as the start of the break-up of the United Kingdom which would lead to a weakening of the national government, and its position in world politics.

But what do the people want?

The recent Scottish referendum which asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” returned a no vote with a 10% majority, on an unprecedented 84% turnout. Other referendums on devolution-related topics have fared less well on voter engagement: the Greater London Authority was established with a 72% majority on a 34% turnout; and the last limited devolution referendum in England was in the North East in 2004, where it was rejected, by nearly 80% of voters on a 47% turnout.

The Scottish question was a single issue campaign which people understood and engaged with, unlike the devolution debate in general. This has become enmashed in other policy areas such as health, education and planning, rather than being a single policy debate in its own right.  Generally, there is a lack of discussion with the electorate about what devolution could be trying to achieve:

  • A democratic voice for local areas and the structures needed to do that consistently and fairly;
  • Ensuring decision making is based on knowledge or the needs, requirements and opportunities of the local population;
  • Ability to create competitive local economies, that play to strengths and tackle micro-economic issues;
  • Streamlining government structures and preserving the whole country as an economic power;
  • The need to develop transparent decision making structures, which everyone can engage with;
  • A planning system which ensures strategic decisions are made which support local place development;
  • Ensure access to services, such as education, health and social care meet consistent, national standards but respond to local requirements;
  • Ensure a fair, place-based spending approach, which invests in places without widening the gap between them, and is balanced by social justice.

There are clear arguments for and against devolution, and whereas Dickens popularised political discussion in the nineteenth century by creating a narrative people related to (serialised in ‘cheap’ papers which the growing educated population and new middle classes could access) the majority of the electorate today is not engaged in these discussions. In the run up to the general election, there is a lack of populist narrative about devolution and, as a result, change could be implemented without full democratic participation and an understanding of the impacts.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on devolution, democracy and political engagement. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further Reading:

Manifesto for Local Economies

Devolution: the basics

Devo Met: charting a path ahead

The future of planning and place making

Getting to the heart of devolution in Manchester (new approaches to integrated health and care)

A healthy new direction or a costly gamble? (devolution of health and social care budget to Greater Manchester)

Governing in an ever looser union: how the four governments of the UK co-operate, negotiate and compete

The agenda: devolution (devolution to non-metropolitan areas)

The implications of devolution for England

Living in a democracy, it’s easy to forget how fortunate we are

voting what's the point

Photo: Rebecca Riley

By Rebecca Riley

A week ago I was invited to a private view of “Election! Britain Votes” – a bold and experimental new exhibition developed by the People’s History Museum in Manchester as we prepare to go to the polling station. Having read the recent review by New Statesman, where the exhibition is described as “candid and sincere… far removed from the complacency we often get when museums try and do politics”, I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite museums.

As a big supporter of democracy and people having the right to actively participate in the decisions which rule our lives, I couldn’t help but wonder at the number of attendees (it was a ‘good turn-out’) and whether the innovation and impact of the exhibition will ever reach the people it needs to, the disaffected voters.

Opened by Jon Snow, he made some interesting opening statements –  his enthusiasm for the exhibition was obvious but he highlighted some key issues we face as a democracy:

  • “It’s time to start running the country in a different way… we are a country of London” – a tip of the hat to the devolution options now being discussed, within cities and across devolved nations.
  • It “cannot be right, that there are not more women in parliament” – pointing out a thought-provoking statistic from the exhibition, that there haven’t been enough women in parliament so far, to fill the whole House once!

The exhibition is pitched as a place to debate, discuss and reflect on the importance of our vote in 2015. Through the most amazing and immersive infographics I have seen (created by @AJGardnerDesign) the exhibition takes you through the history of voting; the mechanics of it and what goes on behind the scenes.

It lays down the gauntlet to Russell Brand by answering the question “voting: what’s the point?” and finishes with a terminal which allows you to register online to vote. The visitor is challenged not to, having witnessed the struggle others went through to enable you to have the right!

Having visited, the prevailing memory of the exhibition is summed up in the title of this blog – we take for granted the privileges we have as a result of living in a democracy. Taking it for granted means we risk losing its benefits:

  • Reducing inequality by preventing the capture of power by elite groups – power is spread wider and in a more representative way;
  • Representing diverse opinions and needs of individuals across government, and ensuring government money helps those in need;
  • Having greater control and power over our own everyday lives;
  • Countering extremism from either direction; and
  • Maintaining local decision making and accountability.

As Jon Snow said, the exhibition shows us “how we got to where we are… but we don’t know where we will be”. But one thing was very obvious from the voter turnout figures presented – fewer and fewer people are exercising their right to shape what we will be, as a country and community. The voting population is disillusioned and feels excluded from the decision making; and political parties, individual politicians and the government should take action to re-engage the electorate.

If you are wondering why you should vote, I would highly recommend a visit!


Further reading

We have previously blogged on voting and democracy:

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

A programme for effective government: what the party manifestos must address in 2015

Civic participation and political trust: the impact of compulsory voting

Elections: turnout (House of Commons Library standard note SN/SG/1467)

Voter engagement in the UK: fourth report of session 2014/15

‘Workshop of the world’ … Is British manufacturing a thing of the past?

Image of old industrial plant.

Image: Till Krech via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

By Steven McGinty

In the 19th century, Britain was heralded as the ‘workshop of the world’, producing everything from locomotives to extraordinary handicrafts. By the 20th century, the United States was the predominant manufacturing power, but Britain had become a specialist in manufacturing.  In recent history, economic growth has been led by the service sector, particularly from financial services in the City of London.

This change in the economy has led to a lot of debate. In fact, this was cited as one of the main drivers of inequality by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) at a recent seminar I attended. However, does this mean Britain should return to its industrial roots, or should it focus on the provision of services, which has been seen as key to recent economic successes?

The Chancellor, George Osborne, certainly thinks there’s a place for manufacturing. In March 2014, he emphasised that his Budget was focused on boosting UK manufacturing and rebalancing the economy across the regions. The Budget included some high profiles measures, including the introduction of £7 billion of funding to cut energy bills for manufacturers, as well as compensation of £1 billion for energy intensive manufacturers.

A recent House of Commons Library statistical release provides some interesting insights into the UK manufacturing sector. It reports that economic output has decreased from 30% in the 1970s to 10% in 2012 and that manufacturing was badly affected during the recession, falling 14.5% between the first quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009. The manufacturing workforce has also reduced from 5.6 million in 1982 to 2.6 million in 2014.

However, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report provides some signs of optimism. It found that, since 1948, productivity in the manufacturing sector has increased gradually by 2.8% each year, compared to 1.4% in the service sector. The report suggests that the UK manufacturing sector has benefited more from information and communications technology (ICT) than the services sector and the more integrated global economy.

These factors have contributed to a shift from low-value manufacturing, where the focus was on low costs and low skilled workers, to high-value manufacturing, where workers provide value to the production process with their knowledge and expertise.

Interesting trends have also started to develop. For instance, Civitas has produced a report into ‘onshoring’ or ‘reshoring’, a practice that involves firms bringing back production that they had previously sent overseas. Firms are taking this approach for a number of reasons, some of which are related to the difficulties of offshoring such as language barriers, whereas others are looking more at the positives of domestic production, such as improved quality control, as well as an increase in a brand’s appeal by its connection to having products manufactured in countries such as the UK. Examples of onshoring including General Motors, who are currently investing £125 million in a domestic supply chain in the UK.

The report also highlighted that there are still barriers to onshoring. For example, less flexible workforces, although this is deemed to be changing in the United States as trade unions are becoming more flexible.

We have also seen the rise of ‘phoenix industries’. These are groups of firms that use similar technologies and have emerged in traditional industrial areas, typically developing sophisticated components for use in a range of industries. This idea was discussed in a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. It focused on a case study of the West Midlands, an area which has been seen as the ‘heartland’ of the automotive industry.  The article emphasised the importance of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the niche/luxury car manufacturer, for providing opportunities for smaller more innovative companies in their supply chain. Yet, the article also highlights that getting access to funding is key for these companies to develop their prototypes. This lack of funding for small firms was identified as a weakness of the UK sector.

So, is British manufacturing a thing of the past? The answer is most likely no. However, the shape of the manufacturing industry and the role it has to play as part of the overall economy has still to be determined. This will depend on a number of factors including future government policy, particularly addressing issues such as access to capital and shortages of skills, as well as the overall global economy, most notably the ability of the Eurozone to recover from its current economic downturn.


 

 Further reading:

N.B. Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service. Find more information on the service here.

To regulate or not to regulate? Housing standards in the private rented sector

To Let housing signs

Image from Flickr user Locksley McPherson Jnr, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

The Scottish Government published its ‘Consultation on a New Tenancy for the Private Sector’ on the 6 October 2014. The paper states that 333,231 homes are rented privately in Scotland and it puts forward proposals to modernise the sector including giving tenants greater security of tenure, including:

  • Landlords to offer tenancies of not less than 6 months.
  • A bar on repossession except in specific circumstances.
  • The introduction of a model tenancy agreement.

The consultation poses a series of questions relating to rent levels, in particular ‘what action, if any, should the Scottish Government take on rent levels in the private rented sector in Scotland?’ Clearly the focus of the consultation is on the affordable private rented sector, but the implications of legislative change are likely to be far broader and impact across the whole rental sector.

The consultation raises a number of big issues for a range of stakeholders including tenants, landlords, citizens’ advice bureaux, local authorities, and indeed for the broader social rented sector, because any changes may well have knock-on implications far beyond the private sector tenant/landlord relationship.

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