I, Daniel Blake…holds a very personal truth.

i_daniel_blake

Esme Madill

I thought watching I Daniel Blake would be ok. I know what goes on.

Kate reminded me of the woman at a Brixton advice centre, a single mum of three impeccably turned out children, she was going back to college. I got her a grant for her books. Her lecturer was fulsome in his praise. But the Benefits Agency could not cope with her part time working and college course. The Housing Benefit arrears built up. She had never been in debt before and, when she came to tell me she had given up college, she looked me straight in the eye and told me she never would be again. I later found out she was working as an escort. She gave me a plant for Christmas and thanked me for trying. Times were kinder then, in the late 1980’s, the man at the Benefits Agency did make a few attempts to get it right: her benefits were not stopped on three occasions deliberately, just through a backlog of incompetence.

As for Daniel, he brought to mind a man in a decimated former coalfield area in the early 2000’s. He came to a carer’s support group beaming from ear to ear and clasping packets of biscuits. He had got a job – finally. We were so delighted and toasted his good fortune with strong tea and chocolate hobnobs. Turns out it was agency work – a precursor of the zero hour’s contract. He rarely had more than a day’s work a week but he never came back to the support group. One of the other men told me he was too ashamed.

The scene in the Food Bank reminded me of the mother of two teenage girls, at a refugee drop in, asking in a barely audible, aching, voice whether I could give her some sanitary towels. My face reddened in shame that she had to ask and I had to give. I was spared looking at her face as she stared resolutely at the floor. A few months later one of her daughters was admitted to hospital with suspected malnutrition: it was 2010 – austerity was biting.

Daniel made me think of my grandad too – a gentle giant, who, thank God, lived in kinder times: he was old in the 1970’s and 80’s when the welfare state was not a dirty word. He and my Gran lived in sunny sheltered accommodation and kept toffees down the sides of their chairs for eager grandchildren. Yet they had not a penny to spare and I can still see and smell the piles of coins for the gas and electricity. Only when I went to Cambridge and met the families of my fellow students did I realise that retired people could go on holiday and drive cars in real life. Not just in novels.

But I was a child of the welfare state. As my grandad boasted to anyone who would listen, in the working men’s club, on the day I received a letter confirming my University place: his mum put a cross on her marriage certificate as she could not write her name and I was off to bloody Cambridge.

Sometimes I am winded by the thought of all those girls and boys now who could not even dream of the chances I have had. My mum, a single parent, worked long and hard and raised my two brothers and I to believe the glittering towers were as much our right as any child’s. But her work-ravaged back, care worn hands and crazy faith in our abilities might not have got us quite so far without a full grant and comprehensive education, where teachers were not shackled to the national curriculum but had time to collar me after class and press into my eager hands copies of Lord of the Flies, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, alongside prospectuses for seats of learning I had barely dared dream of…

We are the fifth richest country in the world, excluding tax havens, and right now working people are saved from hunger by volunteers at Food Banks. Traumatised refugee children, a matter of miles from our coastline, rely on volunteers for physical safety as well as their daily bread. Volunteers keep our libraries and swimming pools open. One retired social worker volunteers each week running a support group for grandparents raising their grandchildren. The grandparents describe the support group as a lifeline. Some have had their benefits sanctioned like Daniel. It is hard to actively seek work while caring for a distressed teenager whose mum has just died… but the media tells a different tale. One of shirkers and skivers, of those who would bleed the honest taxpayer dry and who have no shame.

What Ken Loach does so well is recount the lives of those who feel the shame all too sharply. He tells those stories in all their richness: Daniel is a wood carver and loves the Shipping Forecast. My Gran, who was in work at the age of 14, loved to do the Telegraph Cryptic Crossword, which one of her sons would bring her home from his work. She also scoured the local library for books on Richard the III: she was a history buff and did not even realise it.

Watching I Daniel Blake I vowed to keep telling those stories too, in the face of the lies that would have us believe that those without access to money and resources are somehow lesser. For Loach is right: the current attack on the poor is ideological and driven by cruelty. It is unnecessary. After the Second World War this country chose to craft a welfare state – we were not wealthier as a nation then. Yet now those in power are choosing to tear that safety net to shreds. Telling us we cannot afford to care for the sick, the disabled, the poor or the stranger. But there is another message, no longer subliminal: we are asked to believe that those who have recourse to the welfare state do not deserve support.

Who but the delusional can believe that wealth and privilege comes through hard work alone and does not also rely on a huge dose of luck? Whether you are born in Aleppo or Aldeburgh is down to luck. Whether your father is a millionaire or an ex miner is down to luck. You can work long and hard and give it your all but, like Daniel, ill health can strike you at any time and you can find yourself one pay cheque, or one decision maker’s whim, away from disaster.

My daughter saw I Daniel Blake before I did and came home in tears. She asked me what she could do. She already volunteers for local charities. I told her the most radical response to the current assault on the poor is to refuse to believe the lies and to constantly tell the truth as she sees it, to treat everyone no matter how poor or sick or desperate with dignity and respect: not just for their sake but for all our sakes. I Daniel Blake is a terrifying indictment of the state of our nation. We are all of us the poorer and the sicker for living in such a world. We do nothing at our peril.


First thoughts on the Iraq Inquiry

One of the main focuses of the Chilcot Inquiry was how the case for war was developed and whether it was exaggerated – or ‘sexed’ up.

Both Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell continue to deny that there was any attempt to mislead Parliament or the public on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s possession of chemical and biological weapons, long range missiles and potential nuclear weapons capability.

Julian Miller, Chief of the Assessments Staff from September 2001 to November 2003 told Chilcot:

“… we were the recipients of the intelligence on the basis described and we gave weight to those descriptions, but we didn’t try to get underneath the surface of what had led to a conclusion particularly about the reliability of any particular stream.”

Asked how much the JIC had known about the sources, Mr Miller added:
“Generally not a great deal. From time to time, when there was a particular source which the agencies attached great weight to, there was some briefing given on why they were attaching particular weight to a source. But it was all at a fairly high level of generality, and there was, for the bulk of the reporting, nothing more than the descriptors on the individual reports.”

This was what Dr Michael Williams, Special Advisor to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote to his boss in a memo at the time:

“The text I’ve seen is not significantly different from one I saw in late Spring. “It is certainly not a ‘killer’ dossier. The material is often poorly presented and would benefit from professional editing to make it a sharper assessment. I am surprised that we do not have stronger material … We need, I believe, to regard the publication of the strongest material as a political imperative.”

Alastair Campbell knew all this and more but castigated the BBC for suggesting that the intelligence case had been exaggerated. As a result of this hounding and the subsequent leak enquiry, Dr David Kelly was eventually outed as the source of the Gilligan/Newsnight story. Dr Kelly was found dead close to his Oxford home on 9 July 2003. No fewer than six prominent consultants argued that the coroner’s verdict of suicide was untenable based on the established medical facts of the case.

The Hutton Enquiry supported the government’s position that the dossier had not been “sexed up”, and that it was in line with available intelligence, although the Joint Intelligence Committee, chaired by John Scarlett, may have been “subconsciously influenced” by the government. Following Chilcot, the facts indicate it was quite the other way round, and that the JIC had been quite consciously instructed by the government to make the case for war even though there was no substantial basis to any of the so-called intelligence “judgements”.

But Campbell like Blair not only feels exonerated but vindicated by the Chilcot Report:

“There was no secret deal, there was no lying, there was no deceit, there was no “sexing up” of the intelligence”. Alastair Campbell wrote in The Guardian the day after the report’s publication.

It’s only possible to say that with a straight face because the party of war extended across Whitehall, the Cabinet, Parliament, the intelligence services, the White House and large sections of the media as an unspoken agreement that the case for conflict had to be made to fit the facts and all contrary opinion ignored or edited out.

Those in power who allowed this catastrophic war to happen have to answer also for the corruption of our democratic institutions in the cause of another country’s desire to impose its hegemony on a strategically important but militarily unthreatening country which is now the boiling centre of a genuine terrorist contagion that will last for decades to come.


Building the Northern Powerhouse from the Rubble of the Old? The uneven geographies of urban policy in post-crash Britain.

 

Simon Parker

We both want to build a new economy from the rubble of the old. We will support sustainable growth and enterprise, balanced across all regions and all industries.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg, in the Coalition agreement, May 2010

 

The 2008 Financial Crisis and Its Aftermath

 

After 1979, Mrs Thatcher inaugurated a 30 year experiment through which both Conservative and New Labour governments balanced ‘neo-liberal’ reforms with an undisclosed, redistributive national settlement of publicly-funded employment and service provision. After 2008, the financial crisis and the ensuing politics of austerity will traumatically terminate a redistributive social settlement which disproportionately benefited ex-industrial regions of the North and West that have no autonomous capacity to create private sector jobs (Ertürk et al. 2011).

 

Ertürk et al.’s assessment rightly points to the vulnerability of precarious regional geographies that have become dependent on public sector employment and what Williams et al. referred to in an earlier CRESC publication as the ‘parastate’ – the private sector that has grown wealthy and engorged on the outsourcing of public services and infrastructure (Froud et al. 2009). At the same time, the increasing financialisation of UK capital and the accompanying property boom that was largely concentrated in London and the South East created significant overheating in this historically dominant and densely populated region. But although the City of London together with Wall Street was the instigator and stage set for the 2008 financial crisis, its negative effects were almost entirely externalized to the ‘non-core’ UK regions. As Ertürk et al write

the post-2008 break represents a major shift in the forms and consequences of economic and political power, the outcome so far consolidates the position of London as a kind of ‘City State’ within the national economy (Ertürk et al. 2011).

The concentration of financial and therefore economic power in the City of London led to what the Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson refers to as the growth of a ‘bankocracy’ under New Labour as an increasingly unregulated financial sector was allowed to engage in hugely risky speculative investments leveraged on the basis of a domestic credit boom. Labour had failed to invest in new high technology manufacturing in the wake of the deindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s preferring instead to allow regional economic policy making to be delivered by the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) whose remit was to create jobs and business startups rather than high skilled, highly rewarded employment. Pockets of FDI in the North-East, the Midlands and South Wales that were often negotiated by the DTI (or BIS – the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills as it is now called) drew attention to a piecemeal and disjointed policy that was pusillanimous in the face of global de-investment and mergers and acquisitions.

This newly assertive, often foreign owned, and globally distributed capital has – specific tax and grant incentives aside – no motive for rebalancing Britain’s highly skewed investment pattern and as Ertürk et al argue

The atrophy of manufacturing stripped out many jobs, while the rise of finance created very few jobs. In manufacturing, the huge increase in import penetration more than outweighed export success so that, in real terms, the output of British manufacturing in 2011 was no higher than in 1979, while the employment base in manufacturing had declined over the same period from 6 million to just under 2.5 million (Ertürk et al. 2011).

The reliance of the UK regions outside London on shrinking manufacturing and low-skilled service and manual employment has contributed to a substantial unbalancing of the UK labour market to the extent that London was the only region to experience job growth at the time of the financial crash and its aftermath (see Figure 1). It is clear that without the substantial influx of foreign capital and migrant labour into London’s booming global economy during the period, even the most modest and slowest recovery in British history would not have been possible.

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Figure 1. UK Regional Job Losses 2007-2010 (Source: Ertürk et al 2011).

Localism to the Rescue?

But what has been the coalition government’s response to the combined trauma of the 2008 financial crash and the consequent contraction of the UK economy and the concentration of employment and investment in London and the South East? Step forward Lord Heseltine, savior of Liverpool and the Mersey, and a man with unfinished work to do on reversing the decline of the industrial north.

In his report for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘No Stone Unturned: In Pursuit of Growth’, Heseltine wrote

The economic challenges faced by Bristol, Cambridge or Hull will never be fixed simply by improving housing or upgrading broadband access. Barriers to growth are always multi-faceted. But Whitehall continues to approach these issues from the individual policy priorities of different departments, as if economic issues can be addressed effectively in a placeless vacuum. All my experience with place based initiatives – from Urban Development Corporations to City Challenge and the Regional Growth Fund – tells me there is a better way (Heseltine, 2012: 12).

Undoubtedly the most significant result of the Regional Growth Fund has been the Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) initiative, which essentially took over a much-reduced regional aid fund budget from the Regional Development Agencies. A transition process which Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills described as ‘chaotic and Maoist’. Amid the pots of gold that LEPs are allowed to bid for are the newly revamped Enterprise Zones (first introduced by Heseltine in the 1980s), an opportunity to bid for the regional growth fund, and various mostly non pecuniary powers under the Localism Act (Bailey 2011).

In June 2010 local businesses and civic leaders were invited to come forward with proposals for establishing LEPs ‘that reflected natural economic geographies’. The Heseltine report summarises the outcome

Thirty-nine LEPs cover the whole of England. LEPs bring local business and civic leaders together to provide the vision and leadership to drive sustainable economic growth and create the conditions to increase private sector jobs in their communities. They cover areas intended to relate to functional economic market areas so their work can build on local strengths, in rural as well as urban areas, and identify the local barriers to growth.

It is important to note the use of the term ‘functional economic market areas’ which suggest a move away from the model of the centrally defined and imposed administrative region towards a more ‘organic’ notion of regional agglomeration economies that advocates of city-regions have been championing for some time (see Harding 2007 and for a counter argument Jonas and Ward 2007). However, with the removal of the institutional architecture provided by the Regional Development Agencies, the Government Offices for the Regions (GoRs) and Regional Leadership Boards, LEPs have struggled to create even the administrative capacity to support the task specific policy interventions that have been agreed between the contracting authorities (Pugalis 2011). This finding is confirmed by a recent National Audit Office report which found that ‘the Enterprise Zones and the Regional Growth Fund have…been slow to create jobs and face a significant challenge to produce the number of jobs expected. The estimate of jobs to be created by Enterprise Zones by 2015 has dropped from 54,000 to between 6,000 and 18,000’.[1]

 Beyond the Northern Powerhouse Model

In a desperate attempt to breathe new life into the coalition’s ‘re-balancing’ agenda, Chancellor George Osborne has endorsed Jim O’Neill and the City Growth Commission’s proposal to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ based around a newly empowered and high-speed networked Manchester city-region.[2] As the report’s authors note

In the wake of the Scottish referendum debate and with the political parties looking ahead to May 2015, several of
the Commission’s initial recommendations have already been taken up in Government and Opposition thinking, particularly the importance of connectivity between and agglomeration of northern cities; strengthening the links between higher education and metro growth; and, the need for fiscal devolution to those cities able to shoulder a genuine transfer of
risk (O’Neill/City Growth Commission, 2015: 2).

The Greater Manchester hub (‘Devo Manc’ as it has been dubbed) is expected to form the centre of a northern metropolitan agglomeration economy including Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool but with the cities of the North East notably absent. As O’Neill writes, ‘…only London, Manchester and West Yorkshire may be ready to manage these risks and therefore to apply for devolved status,’ while, ‘other city metros – such as the North East – may well be ready for this very soon’ (Ibid.: 10). This argument is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the only English region to have voted for and rejected devolved regional powers is the North East.

Meanwhile the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also favours greater devolution concentrated on the English city-regions as a way of counter-balancing the increasing powers and prestige of Holyrood. Like the City Growth Commission, the IPPR sees Greater Manchester as being a particularly suitable candidate for what it calls ‘Devo-More’ and it also supports the establishment of a directly elected Greater Manchester Mayor with extensive direct powers. Under current devolved arrangements approved by the Conservative-LibDem coalition government, these powers now include health and social care as well as the Work Programme jointly commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions—a suite of powers far more extensive than those currently enjoyed by the Mayor of London.[3]

However the promotion of Greater Manchester as ‘London North’ fails to acknowledge the vast gap between London and Manchester in the global urban hierarchy, which no amount of city-region branding or boosterist think tank reports can hope to close. While it is true that Manchester can boast two world-class football teams, a newly built MediaCity and a large, world class university—compared to Alpha++ London, Manchester made only the 6th division (Beta) of the Global and World Cities Research Network (GaWC) global urban rankings in 2012.[4] To put these relativities into context, in 2013 businesses added £20,724 to the UK economy for each resident of Greater Manchester compared to £40,215 per resident of London.[5]

Expensive infrastructure projects like HS2 will skew infrastructural investment along the ‘core cities’ pole linking Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds, leaving the North East as a genuinely ‘desolate North’. Ed Balls has shown a stronger commitment and appreciation of lateral high-speed links that might see a scaling back of HS2 by a future Labour government in favour of a Manchester-Newcastle HS3 link, which could be prioritized over the southern route.[6] But if it is socially just to hypothecate mansion tax revenues from London and the South East to the NHS, it is equally legitimate to redistribute planning gain windfalls from London’s speculative property bubble and the asset sales of partially nationalised banks to enhance the skills base of the North through intensive investment in education and training, the creation of special regional investment banks (with a requirement that at least half the lending goes to small and medium enterprises), and targeted grants and subsidies aimed at stimulating the green economy with incentives for partnerships with the university and FE sector.

However without genuine redistributive fiscal devolution and a democratic renewal that puts service users and citizens at the heart of local government decision-making, the Northern Powerhouse will leave most of its socially and economically disadvantaged residents locked outside.

Notes

[1] National Audit Office, ‘Funding and structures for local economic’, 6 December 2013 growthhttp://www.nao.org.uk/report/funding-structures-local-economic-growth-2/

[2] Rt. Hon. George Osborne, ‘We need a Northern powerhouse: Chancellor of the Exchequer on what we can do to make the cities of the north a powerhouse for our economy again’, speech at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, 23 June 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/chancellor-we-need-a-northern-powerhouse

[3] Nick Pearce, ‘Greater Manchester: the beginning of ‘Devo-More’ for England’, IPPR http://www.ippr.org/nicks-blog/greater-manchester-the-beginning-of-devo-more-for-england

[4] ‘The world according to GaWC 2012’, University of Loughborough http://www.lboro.ac.uk/gawc/world2012t.html

[5] Source: Office for National Statistics

[6] ‘Labour question whether Birmingham-Manchester HS2 route makes any sense, and plan North East link’ Manchester Evening News, 26 March 2015 http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/labour-question-whether-birmingham-manchester-hs2-8920866

Bibliography

David Bailey, (2011) ‘From RDAs to LEPs in England: challenges and prospects’, Regions Magazine, 284(1), 13-15.

Ismail Ertürk, Julie Froud, Sukhdev Johal, Adam Leaver, Michael Moran and Karel Williams (2011), ‘City State against National Settlement: UK Economic Policy and Politics after the Financial Crisis’, CRESC Working Paper 101.

Julie Froud, Adam Leaver, Karel Williams, Sukhdev Johal and John Buchanan (2009), ‘Undisclosed and unsustainable: problems of the UK national business model’, CRESC Working Paper 75.

Andrew Jonas and Kevin Ward (2007) ‘There’s More Than One Way to be “Serious” about City-Regions’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(3), 647-56.

Alan Harding (2007) ‘Taking City Regions Seriously? Response to Debate on ‘City-Regions: New Geographies of Governance, Democracy and Social Reproduction”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(2), 443-58.

Michael Heseltine (2012) No stone unturned. In Pursuit of Growth, London, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Jim O’Neill and City Growth Commission (2015) Unleashing Metro Growth. London: Royal Society of Arts.

Lee Pugalis (2011) ‘The Regional Lacuna: A Preliminary Map of the Transition from Regional Development Agencies to Local Economic Partnerships’, Regions Magazine, 281(1), 6-9.

© Simon Parker, University of York, 31st March 2015.


Neoliberalism, the Crash and the Urban Crisis

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The start of July at the University of York sees a week of conferences on neoliberalism, the financial crisis and the fate of cities both featuring talks by the leading economic geographer, Jamie Peck.  The first conference Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System runs from 2 -3 July and also includes plenary presentations  by Jodi Dean, Mark Fisher, John Holmwood plus sessions on themes including digital data as neoliberal tools, the state and democracy under neoliberalism, and higher education and neoliberalism. The conference is organised by Nick Gane from the Sociology Department and Claire Westall from the Department of English and Related Studies. It is free, but places are limited so please check with the organisers if you would like to attend. UPDATE: A number of papers from the conference, plus one I gave on the Greek Financial Crisis and the Crash at the Urban Economies conference can be found on OpenDemocracy.

The second conference on ‘Urban Economies‘ is organised by me and colleagues at the Centre for Urban Research (CURB), and is the fifth in our Post-Crash City series. Featuring keynote addresses by Jamie Peck (UBC Vancouver) and Alan Harding (Liverpool) the conference takes place in the Berrick Saul Building in Vanbrugh College on 4th and 5th July. An international group of presenters will address the impact of the financial crash on the economy of cities and regions in Europe, the United States and in global perspective. Places are still available for non-presenting delegates and the registration fee  (£80 for employed and £35 for students/unwaged) covers lunch on both days, refreshments and the conference dinner. UPDATE: Videocasts of the keynote addresses by Jamie Peck and Alan Harding plus audio recordings of the other speakers can be found on the CURB website.


Forward

I’m interested in exploring the boundaries between activism and academic practice especially in the area of spatial politics/the politics of space and social justice. Content will therefore include everything from reflections on current affairs to more specialist talks and research papers, plus the odd image from time to time.

This will take a bit of time to furnish so please check back now and again.