The Bickerstaffe Record

The world beyond West Lancashire

Shock news – blogger reads report in full before commenting

08.15.08 | Comment?

When all the hoo-hah erupted yesterday about the Policy Exchange report , my initial reaction was: “Why would they do that?  Why would a think-tank, with a living to earn, publish a report with such crazy recommendations that even the Conservatives will feel the need to find objectionable?  Who’s going to commission their work now?” 

So I thought I’d better read the report.  I guess that must make be a bit of an oddity amongst all the people who’ve now commented on it one way or another. 

It turns out that, while the Northerners moving South stuff may make for big headlines, and may even have been set up that way by Policy Exchange to grabe the headline, this is not for the most part what the report’s about at all.  In fact, while some it’s a bit all over the place, there are bits of I agree with. 

I agree that local authorities need to have greater control over local regeneration spending (p.62) , and so would many Labour councillors; indeed that’s a central point in last year’s Lyons Review. 

I agree that the success of regeneration funding is too often measured by how much has gone on and what programme targets have been met (p.17), rather than what the overall situation is after it’s been pumped in.  After all, this is the key to my ongoing critique of the Conservative management of leisure services in West Lancashire – it’s not a question of what’s spent that matter, but what happens to people. 

There is merit in the recommendation that “the Government should roll up current regeneration funding streams and allocate the money to local authorities according to a simple formula based on the inverse of their average income levels?” (p6)  At least there is merit if it means what I think it means, as that pretty radical its redistribution effect. 

I agree with the concept that local authorities “should be able to spend the money on palliative measures, improving the quality of life for those people who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not move. Such people must not be forgotten.” (p.63) 

I agree that some additional flexibility to allow the building of homes on land currently designated as employment land would be welcome, even though this recommendation fits badly with notions about overall expansion of the geographic size of prosperous cities (p.3, p.34)

I agree that on the whole less prosperous areas will tend to stay RELATIVELY less prosperous than others over long periods (as the report notes, that not a new findings) (p.12) though I disagree with the way the report dismisses the validity of absolute prosperity/wellbeing as a measure of success (as in people might actually be happier in the North, even with w a bit less money, because they’re near friends, hills and decent bitter).  I also think there’s little attention paid to what makes the exceptions to this ‘rule’ work – what about Ireland over the last 20 years, for example, and what the regeneration cash contributed? 

I agree that some regeneration funding can be well spent on increasing ‘connectivity’ between towns, though I fail to see why this may be a great idea for the connecting of Hastings to Brighton and Dover (p42) but simply wouldn’t work the same way in Rochdale/Manchester (p.43), and I’m a bit surprised the authors haven’t noticed it’s already happening, for example here  (hat tip Steve Hanlon) and here.

So, yes, the report is wrong in many places and ways, and the overall pessimistic conclusion about the future of smaller Northern towns is way over the top both because it is too ‘relativist’ and because it ignores what can happen when regeneration is done well and appropriate to local circumstance, preferring to claim that it’s always done badly (it often is, to that extent I concur).  I mean, I know they can’t get everywhere, but they’ve not mentioned Ulverston  (and that’s not just because Stan Laurel was born there).  It’s also wrong about the capacity of the Audit Commission to scrrutinise, but that’s another post…… 

The report seeks to be provocative – that’s the nature of Think-tank reports, but it’s not ‘insane’, as Cameron called it yesterday.   What’s insane is that he should condemn it before bothering to read it, or at least get one his foot-soldiers to tell him what’s really in it rather than how the Telegraph reports it

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