And finally, at the local level…

The final part of a personal political manifesto

I have talked in earlier posts of the need for leadership from national government, and most importantly (particularly with regard to measures to tackle our climate and ecological emergency) for the development and implementation of top-down policies that take the pressure off individuals ‘doing the right thing’. Well leadership needs to be shown at the local government level as well. Whilst I fully appreciate that what Dorset Council can achieve is severely limited by national government policy, and in particular by national government funding, until we have achieved a good balance between the powers and responsibilities of national and local government, Dorset needs to show ambition. It needs to show leadership by proclaiming what it would like to achieve and be prepared to publicly challenge Westminster if it is prevented from delivering.

This challenging of Westminster is particularly relevant to planning issues. Dorset is currently in the process of developing its new Local Plan – a local planning policy that, alongside national policies like the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), will form the main reference point for all planning decisions for the next five years or so. One of the most contentious areas of the plan is the number of new homes that will be built – a number that is calculated according to the methodology of Westminster’s housing needs assessment. But it’s not just the number of new houses that is the issue, it’s also the type of houses. Most in need are smaller homes that local people can afford, not larger homes that attract people to move down from London. To be fair, Spencer Flower, the current Leader of the Council, in response to the campaign group Dorset Deserves Better, has raised these concerns with Michael Gove, the minister responsible.

Back in 2018, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the Royal Town Planning Institution (RTPI) published a joint report, ‘Rising to the Climate Crisis’, which was “a call to arms to put climate change at the heart of the planning process.” I see very little evidence of this happening in Dorset. Planning is arguably the front line in the local government battle against the climate crisis, so climate must be at its heart. This report calls for Local Plans to “set a carbon dioxide emissions reduction target and lay out clear ways of measuring progress.” Whilst it admits that there is a lack of clarity as to the extent the Local Plan can set ambitious targets on the energy efficiency of new developments (an example of where Westminster needs to show leadership) it does say that there is “nothing to stop local plans adopting requirements for on site renewable energy generation.” Dorset’s new Local Plan needs to take these recommendations seriously and push at the boundaries of what it is allowed to do regarding the energy efficiency of all new developments.

Closely linked (if not inseparable) with planning is transport. The RTPI recently published a research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’ which argues that the “planning system often appears to deliver the wrong type of development in the wrong place”. We need to take this report seriously. We need to maximise “the potential for local living by ensuring that most people can access a wide range of services, facilities and public spaces by walking and cycling.” This means creating what the report terms ‘the 15 minute neighbourhood’, communities where most residents need to travel no more than 15 minutes by foot or bicycle to meet their needs. Through the planning system we need to transfer travel demand from private vehicles to active travel and public transport. This will also require the development of local mobility hubs; transport hubs that connect, for example, the surrounding villages of a town like Bridport to the town centre (through e-bike hire and charging for example) and the town centre with other towns and the rail network (through a cheap and efficient bus network).

An issue that has been growing in my thinking is the need for local governments to develop their ability to engage with local residents. By this I don’t mean simply ‘going out to consultation’ to get their views on any new council proposal, I mean finding ways, new ways, of actually engaging with residents to both find out what matters to them, what are the issues that most concern them, and explaining to them why certain decisions are being proposed. Leadership has two directions. One is the challenging of national government policy, the other getting local residents ‘on board’. Whether we like it or not, how we live will need to change a great deal in the coming years. Many local residents may not fully understand these changes, and will quite understandably react against them unless they feel involved in the decision making.

Meanwhile, on the home front…

In my previous post I focussed on the need for global solutions to global problems. In this post I return to domestic policies. On the home front I have already talked about the need to change our economic model and the need to enhance our democracy with PR – my two ‘headline’ areas of domestic policy. I now want to very briefly outline some other important areas.

The first of these is education, and particularly the need to enhance the national curriculum in order to make it fit for the 21st century. A political colleague of mine, an ecologist by training, has long called for ecology to be taught to all young people as part of their statutory education. Young people need to be taught the science of the relationships between all living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment. For far too long humans have considered ourselves to somehow be separate from the rest of nature. To be in position to fully appreciate and deal with the fast approaching climate and ecological crisis we need to understand the interconnectedness of all life and its intimate relationship with its environment. Related to this is the need to understand the science of complex systems, but I’ll go into detail on this on another occasion.

I also would also call for philosophy and critical thinking to be added to the national curriculum. As I argued in the first of this series of blogs, the toxic state of public discourse needs addressing as a matter priority. And this requires us learning how to think! Yes, I’m sure that we all think we can think – but how good at it are we really? How well do we understand the roll of emotions in decision making? To what extent do we appreciate the importance of being able to ask penetrating questions rather than repeat blind statements of ‘fact’? To what extent do we truly listen to people we disagree with and consider their arguments?

If we are going to make a serious attempt to address our climate and ecological emergency we will also need make serious reforms to our National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Local planning authorities need to be given the powers to demand that all new developments are built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. We need to make a general ban on any new greenfield development and only consider brownfield sites – even if this involves building up rather than out and creating much higher levels of population density. Further, all new developments need to factor out car use. As a recent report has argued, any new development which will make the new occupants dependent on privately owned vehicles (whether they be fossil fuel or electric) needs rejecting.

These planning reforms will need a completely new approach to public transport. Whilst, on the one hand, we need to start redesigning towns and cities such that as many services as possible are accessible via active travel (walking and cycling), on the other we need to make public transport an easier and cheaper option than travelling by car. The bottom line here is that this will require massive subsidies from national government. In fact it will require public transport to be considered a public service under the direct control of national and local government. All the time that our bus and rail services are operated by companies whose main purpose is to make profit, people who do not live in areas of high population density will be denied efficient public transport – for the simple reason that there is insufficient use to make sufficient profit for the operators.

I haven’t got a magic solution to the problems facing the NHS, and if I’m honest I don’t feel that I have sufficient knowledge of how it works to make strong statements about what needs to happen, but creeping privatisation needs to be firmly resisted. We need to re-establish a public service ethos, not permit private companies to deliver services and extract profits even if those services remain free ‘at the point of delivery’. But not all services do remain free at the point of delivery. Assuming that you are able to register with an NHS dentist (or to be more accurate, a dentist employed by a private company delivering dentistry on behalf of the NHS) most people still have to pay for treatment. And I know that the recent pandemic has severely affected the delivery of all local health services but I really do believe it should be easier to get an opportunity to discuss your health concerns, including mental health issues, with your local GP.

And finally, the Royal Family! I’m sorry, but their time has ended. It’s time for them to go. Not only is there something fundamentally wrong with a modern democracy having an unelected Head of State, a person there simply by virtue of their birth, but it occurred to me this last week that perhaps something far more insidious is going on. Could it be that having a privileged person from a privileged family as Head of State makes us far too tolerant of privilege itself? The French, for example, who rejected such privilege back in 1789, are quick to get onto the streets in protest when they feel they are being taken for granted. Yet what do we do when taken for granted by a Prime Minister from a privileged background who thinks that the rules his government created don’t apply to himself? Nothing. Absolutely nothing!

Global problems require global solutions

Part 5 of a personal political manifesto

Many of the most serious problems confronting national governments are global in their nature. Because these problems transcend national borders they need cross border agreement, and many require global agreement. Despite this need, nationalism thrives in many countries. Even governments that are not overtly nationalistic talk about their own country as being ‘world beating’, and put forward policies focussed on successful international competition rather than cooperation. Whilst I understand why this brand of politics is popular, for the sake of future generations it needs resisting. We have evolved to be loyal to our tribe. It is far easier to identify with our national heritage (even if it often paints an overly positive picture of our history) than it is with people from different cultures. However, evolution is not static. Our future requires that we identify with global humanity more than we do the nation state.

Our climate and ecological crisis is arguably the most serious of these global problems. The carbon emitted into the atmosphere by any nation state does not stay within the borders of that state. The resulting rise in greenhouse gases affects the global temperatures. Climate patterns are global phenomena that are no respecter of borders. The tragic (or criminal) felling of large areas of the Amazon Rainforest for cattle grazing may have a positive effect on the economy of Brazil, but the loss of so much natural carbon sequestration has a serious negative effect on us all. The rise in sea levels that will result from the melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps will affect coastal communities, often cities with large populations, across the world.

If the causes of our climate and ecological crisis are global, so too are the actions we need to take to first halt the rise in carbon emissions, and then start reversing them. Individual national governments need to take international agreements far more serious than they do. Attempts like that of the USA, under the Trump presidency, to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, for example, should be both condemned on the world stage and by citizens of the home nation. Simply thinking in terms of the national economy needs rejecting, in fact many of the worlds more wealthy countries may need to take a financial hit in order to help the poorer ones. And we need to become far more collaborative in our development of technology like renewable energy. We will produce technological solutions quicker and easier on an international platform rather than a national one.

There are global problems other than those related to our climate that also require global solutions. For example we are increasingly dependent on infotech for our day to day living. Ever increasing numbers of public services are accessed via the internet – an international telecoms network of networks that is theoretically under the control of no one, but in practice is largely in the control of a few global companies. These large infotech companies probably have more power than individual nation states yet are answerable to no one except their shareholders. Of even greater concern, however, is the threat from tech savvy rogue nations, terrorist groups or criminal gangs to hold countries to ransom through taking control of energy distribution or telecommunication. Such cyber attacks could bring an entire country to its knees. We need international collaboration and trust to prevent such attacks.

There is also, of course, the continued threat from nuclear weapons. Whilst the tension of the 1960’s and 70’s has faded, the existence of these weapons of mass destruction have not. In fact it would appear that the USA and Russia have embarked on a new arms race. This, together with strongly nationalistic heads of state (not to mention the possible election of another Trump) and an increasingly volatile world brought about by climate collapse may make their use seem practical. There is also the possibility of course that some form of nuclear device could fall into the hands of a terrorist group. We need, therefore, renewed international agreement on their control and limitation, and ideally their eradication.

Finally, I feel strongly that former colonial powers like the UK have a greater weight of responsibility to act on these global threats than other countries. The UK is often heralded for its role in driving the industrial revolution, a revolution that, whilst producing many benefits, has also led directly to our climate and ecological crisis. And let’s be honest here, the UK did this by imposing its authority on other nations and stealing their resources. The UK, and similar countries, should therefore carry an increased responsibility when it comes to responding to this crisis. We need to resist the urge to portray ourselves on the international stage as ‘great’ and ‘the best’ and start collaborating with other nations to produce meaningful international agreements that start addressing these global threats.

The need for an enhanced democracy

As I have argued previously, in order to tackle the major issues we face, issues like the climate and ecological crisis, we need both an increase in ‘top down’ decision making and an increase in political leadership. As important as all those actions we take on an individual basis are in reducing our carbon footprint, for example, they are insignificant in comparison to what is needed and will be far too slow to deliver. But there is a problem with this. As I have also argued, I do not believe that definitive answers or solutions to the problems we face exist. How then should politicians and political leaders make those important decisions? If we become sceptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers who should we give our political allegiance to?

The most important first move in resolving this problem is the rejection of our outdated ‘first past the post’ method of electing our political representatives. We need to encourage not only a variety of views, but as many views as possible round the political table. Moreover, the voting public needs to be able to vote for politicians who closely represent their perspective of the problems we face, perspectives that need to be represented around the decision making table in roughly the proportion that they are held by the electorate. At the national level, and increasingly at the local level (certainly on Dorset Council) most important decisions are made at the cabinet level by a small group of politicians of the majority political party. This ensures that minority views are neither argued nor taken into account. This is not only undemocratic, it produces poor, and very blinkered, decisions. It prevents creative discussion and problem solving. Political decisions need to be made by a committee of elected politicians selected to represent all, or as near to all as possible, perspectives. To achieve this we need to adopt, as a matter of urgency, some form of proportional representation (PR).

But adopting PR is only the start of the changes we need to make to our decision making process. We also need to reflect on how politicians make decisions. Politicians round the table need to first of all accept that no matter how strongly they hold the opinion they do it is just not possible for that view to be the definitive position on the issue. No one person can have an all-round perspective. They can only see things from where they are. This means two things. First, that they need to attempt to see the issue from other perspectives. These other perspectives will include not only those others round the table, but most importantly those of the experts, particularly scientists. Second, that most decisions will need to be negotiated. They will involve a compromise. I would like to think that with the right frame of mind, and with the exposure to a wider range of viewpoints, politicians will slowly develop a much more comprehensive set of decision making skills.

But making the decision is only the starting point. Next, that decision needs explaining to the public. And as that decision may not, initially at least, always be popular with the electorate it may well need ‘selling’. This will require strong political leadership. Our political leaders need to not only listen to public opinion, but they need to be able to shape public opinion. They need to shrug off the allure of popularism, particularly when all the evidence suggests actions which will be far from popular. They need to explain this evidence to a naturally sceptical public. They need to be able to explain how they made their decisions in such a way that most people will give them the ‘benefit of the doubt’. These leadership skills are sadly lacking at the moment.

However, this leadership process will be made significantly easier if politicians also make it clear that all decisions will be reviewed in the light of evidence about their effectiveness.
We need to discard our belief that it is a mark of weak leadership to change our mind. Because there is no definitively right or correct decision, there is also to definitively wrong decision. If our decisions do not produce the effects we wanted it doesn’t mean that we ‘got it wrong’. It simply means that, at the time, the best decision was made, but that evidence now suggests that a different decision is needed. Political leadership, therefore, will involve an openness to the review of decisions made.