Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Op-Ed: Why things are not good for UK citizens -- and how to make them better

- By John Whitelegg

We are not doing very well in the UK on things that matter to most people.  We are the 6th richest country in the world and yet we come very near the bottom of most rankings on things like child poverty, inequality, pensioner poverty, excess winter deaths, teenage pregnancy, NEETS, percentage of electricity generated from renewables, levels of cycling and quality of public transport.  None of this is necessary and it is safe to assume that local and central government did not set out to achieve these poor quality outcomes.  So what is going on?

Working out what is going on is not easy but we can clear up the less complicated bits of the story quite quickly.  If we pan across Europe and see who is doing rather well on key measures of quality of life we find a very interesting pattern,  Nordic countries do very well on equality (it is very high) and poverty (very low) so emulating Denmark or Sweden on getting rid of child and pensioner poverty would be very smart.

Switzerland has very impressive outcomes on the quality and quantity of public transport so much so that if we “do a Zurich” for urban transport we have sorted that one and if we “do an Arlesheim or Dornach” for rural transport we have repeated our urban success.  In Switzerland there is no such thing as a rural transport problem.

Cycling is very much in the news in the UK especially in The Times but there is very little analysis of why Manchester’s cycling levels bump along at around 1% of all journeys every day when the figure is 15% in Berlin or 30-40% in several Dutch and Danish cities.  Cycling has such strong links with physical activity, health, dealing with obesity, reducing greenhouse gases and providing a low cost mode of transport for many that it cries out for “doing a Berlin” or “doing a Copenhagen” (50% of all trips for work and education purposes to be done by bike).  Even London with all its bike-hype is far below EU best practice levels.

The renewable energy sector in the UK is a poor performer when compared to Germany and Denmark and yet we have some of the largest tidal energy and offshore wind energy potential of any of the EU 27.  We can learn a great deal from those countries at the upper end of the distribution and up our game through fiscal reform, grants and loans and an energy policy that celebrates our renewable potential.

The easy bit really is easy.  We can produce significant improvements in our UK performance if we want to.  But do we want to?

If we dig a little deeper into things like governance, budgets, centralisation and the representativeness of our politicians (local and central) we find some very interesting co-variation.  The more successful regions and cities in mainland Europe have more power than UK equivalents and do not labour under the centralising influence of national government to the same degree we do.  They have more money to spend on things that matter and they have a much grater diversity of gender and age on local councils.

None of this can deliver a rigorous scientific cause and effect link but poor performance at local government level in the UK is associated with lack of power, lack of money and low levels of representativeness of women and younger age groups in councillor ranks.  Putting all these things right would give us all a better chance of better outcomes.

Digging deeper still and based on exposure to the details of how Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany works, how Copenhagen works and how a state government in Germany works (North Rhine Westphalia) there are bigger cultural factors at work.  It is very clear in Freiburg that all political parties want to work together to make Freiburg a real environmental and economic success.

There is no sterile argument about economy versus environment and no dogmatic adherence to economic development and regeneration as the only reasons for our existence.  Anyone who observes any UK local authority at work will recognise the dominance of the latter in any debate and the way it squeezes out investment and priorities in other areas of life that actually do produce vibrant economies and Freiburg is a super vibrant economy.

Digging deeper there is an enthusiasm and a “can do” attitude to improving quality of life in many if not all of the German, Dutch, Danish, Swiss and Swedish comparisons that can be made to a degree that we do not see in the UK.  This is not surprising in a heavily centralised state where the potential for sorting things out at local level is so small and “can do” people will not want to waste time sitting through long council meetings when the likely outcome after debate is “there is no money and we do not have the power and there are 32 reasons why it wont work”.

The significance of all this is clear.  We can do so much better than we now do and we are far too tolerant of poor performance.  The time has come to say “enough” and do whatever needs to be done to put us into the top 10% of EU performers on all the things that matter.   This in turn needs a very big shove in the right direction by learning from the best performers, giving local government more power and bigger budgets and doing whatever needs to be done to make councillor cohorts more representative and attractive to people who really do want to change things.  The only thing that matters is an absolute, no excuses, high quality commitment to better outcomes.

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This short article is based on John’s book published on 10thAugust:   “Quality of life and public management:  redefining development in the local environment”. Routledge. See

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 About the author:

John was a Lancaster City Councillor for 8 years (2003-2011) and deputy chair of the LGA Transport and Regeneration Board (2007-2009).  In the period 1988-1990 he was a member of staff of the Ministry of Urban Development Housing and Traffic of the State of North Rhine Westphalia in Germany

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  1. Very interesting piece. But good to focus on Europe. In the US, we have the kind of local control that you are advocating for at the state and local government level. And while that does allow for setting stretch goals and great vision on various aspects of the public welfare that you discuss, from transport to dealing with teen pregnancy (not poverty pretty much, anywhere in the US), for the most part that doesn't happen.

    So, while not happy with the current state of the UK government, I look upon with favor the national planning policies of the UK (such as the Policy Planning Guidance papers), oriented to shaping better land use planning at all levels of government. (Of course, subject to change and almost complete reversal when administrations change, just like in the US.)

    And interesting that in the recent elections, many of the UK cities that had the choice through a referendum on the ballot to add mayors chose not to do so.

    and cf. and

  2. From John Whitelegg:

    Thanks Eric. I was heavily involved in the debate that led to PPG13, one of the most quoted and impressive national planning policy documents in Britain.

    It is ignored by every local authority, planning authority, developer, house builder supermarket, shopping complex and science park. There is no auditing, no measure of compliance.

    It is meaningless. All our fine policy documents that are anything to do with transport and land use planning are ineffective.

    I wish things were different.

    very best wishes



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