Last week’s two major policy related events were the publications of the Heseltine Review arguing for a more devolved approach to economic development and the Resolution Foundation’s report on living standards for low to middle income earners. They are both important pieces of work (Resolution’s is much more focused and evidence based). They also both seem to have some traction among policy makers.
Ed Miliband’ s enthusiasm for the Living Wage and Nick Clegg’s decision to prioritise investment in child care are both views which can be taken straight from the recommendations made by Resolution. Meanwhile, the announcement last week of the extension of City Deals to twenty two new cities and large towns show that while the Government (particularly the Conservative majority) may be lukewarm about the neo-corporatist overtones of Heseltine they are signed up to a gradual shift of economic authority to city region level.
If I was making what Stewart Pearson from ‘The Thick of It’ might describe as ‘a 21st century policy casserole’, I would combine ingredients from both the reports but also add my own.
Whilst Heseltine’s growth strategy has little to say about economic inclusion and social justice, Resolution’s, despite its many strengths, is – in my view – insufficiently bold about the scope and case for devolution. For example, Heseltine doesn’t say much about employment services and Resolution calls for a new universal child care subsidy, but there is a strong case for arguing that responsibility for overseeing both areas of provision should lie with locally accountable bodies.
Neither report shows much interest in two pretty major issues influencing the places and the lives lived in them. The first is the quality and effectiveness of public services and spaces. Service standards are important to the quality of life and opportunities of poorer people and are also to local economies in a whole variety of ways (particularly, as the least well off areas tend also, by definition, to be those most reliant on public investment). Second, neither report seems to see the level and quality of civic engagement and social innovation as significant. This is predictable as traditional policy makers don't tend to take the civic side too seriously, but also understandable in view of the paucity of reliable data on differences in local civic engagement and initiative and the impact such differences make on social and economic outcomes.
Given the apparent intractability of the issues addressed by both Heseltine and Resolution we need to use all the weapons in our policy armory. That includes exploring radical decentralisation - including almost all public services and some aspects of welfare entitlement - so that localities can come up with distinctive local strategies and solutions which are 'socially productive' in the RSA sense of enabling people and communities to be better able to contribute to meeting their own needs.
While such an approach raises many difficult policy issues, the alternative is to implement only the politically palatable aspects of both reports even though either on its own is unlikely to significantly to improve the economic prospects of most communities in the UK
Public services, commercial corporations and spontaneous social movements: what's the power they all lack? How might public service reform not flounder through shoehorning dynamism into a universalist and planned approach? How might businesses become genuinely socially responsible rather than merely intoning fine sounding rhetoric?