In December 2011 I went to a talk by Professor Alan Gilbert of the UCL Geography Department, about the struggle for good governance in Colombia’s capital city, and posted about it on my local Forum, where the subsequent discussion can still be read. It had a big impact on my thinking about localism, and I’ve referred back to it many times. And again this morning, on reading this post by Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber
about which I’ll probably blog before long. But here, for future reference, is what I wrote in 2011, lightly edited.
The story – although this was a proper academic talking, so giving an assessment rather than a comforting, easy to digest narrative – was of a developing world city which in 1992 was pretty awful, with stratospheric murder rates, getting to the point now where large numbers of its citizens feel proud to live there, and having a credit rating rather better than much of Western Europe.
Four points stood out for me, because they relate to various posts I have made on this Forum recently.
1. A single, powerful city wide mayor
Bogotà is much the same size as London, but there are no lower level political structures than the city government such as we have with our London Boroughs – and nobody much wants them other than political parties and their potential clients. As in London, most people aren’t that interested in politics, they just want good services. Compare to this post of mine on the ‘Campaigning for Ken’ thread.
2. Regular, independent assessments of the quality of public services
There is an independent private sector organisation which does regular credible surveys of satisfaction with different public services, and their reports are major stories in the local media. Council officers care very much about who well they are seen to be doing. Compare to this other post of mine on the ‘Campaigning for Ken’ thread.
3. Fiscal discipline
In 2011 it is Western Europe and the US which have borrowed up to the point where lenders don’t feel like lending them any more, and we are learning how this takes away our freedom to act as a society. It’s a lesson most of the developing world has learned the hard way over the last 20 years. And a good credit rating does help when it comes to raising money for new infrastructure.
4. No effective planning controls on the construction of new houses and lettings
There are some planning controls on where you can build houses, but they don’t get enforced, and in any case, they don’t apply in outer areas. So people just build their own homes, starting off looking like archetypical shanty towns, but being improved over time, with extra storeys added, perhaps for tenants just moved into the city. So the young and less well off do not get priced out of housing. See reference to US economist Ed Glaeser to OP on the Campaigning for Ken thread – although I should add Prof Gilbert doesn’t have too high an opinion of this author – or, I think, Prof Tony Travers, who I first heard mention this book at another meeting – on localism – that I went to earlier this year.
Contrast this with our situation in London, where central government is intensely suspicious of city wide government in London. Mrs Thatcher went so far as to abolish the GLC, and David Cameron reportedly sees Boris’ power base here as a long term threat to him. Meanwhile, in Whitehall the DCLG channels out money via the structures of London Boroughs, which few other than councillors, some local activists and local government policy wonks are interested in. And their solution to perceived weaknesses? Localism – hoping that somehow even smaller organisations will magic into existence to provide the sorts of effective public services people want.
And then shortly after
There’s an interesting article in this week’s Economist on local government finance – well, at least I find it interesting.
IT ALL seemed so simple 19 months ago when the new coalition announced a revolution in local-authority financing. The apron strings that tie local governments tightly to the centre were to be loosened. Councils were to gain new freedom to raise and spend money, and more responsibility for generating growth (as well as for making unpopular budget cuts). But what started as a straightforward bet on localism has become increasingly fraught, as the urgent need to spur the economy runs up against the equally urgent need to ensure that all councils have roughly enough money to look after their residents.
The particular issue here is business rates, which should now be retained by local councils, so creating an incentive for them to encourage business, develop a predictable revenue stream and so help them raise money for investment from new sources including the capital markets.
Unfortunately, although according to Tony Travers some
councils are already thoroughly pro-business and “would snap your arm off for a new source of jobs”
local authorities cannot be equally alluring to business, however hard they try. Although the rate of business taxation is set centrally (that will change if the government gets its way), the take varies hugely from place to place. Westminster, a rich London council, collected about 33 times as much as Middlesbrough in 2010-11. All will start out equal when the new provisions take effect in April 2013. But thereafter any incentive big enough to change councils’ behaviour leaves less revenue for redistribution. That would widen the gap between authorities capable of promoting growth (mainly in the south) and those where growth is slow or nonexistent.
So the grand concept of localising business rates is being hedged round with levies, tariffs, top-ups and resets.
By London standards, measured by how well it does to attract business, we here in Lewisham have a failing Council – with few excuses such as the long term decline of heavy industry provides for Middlesborough. So Whitehall is reinventing a complex system of welfare dependency to support our Council and other under-performers across London. Against this background, it is hard to see Lewisham ever developing a revenue stream to allow it to raise money for new investment from the markets.
The revenue base for an expanded London-wide government would be another story. Lewisham residents may not work here so much, but we do in other parts of London, so contributing to the business rates paid there, and so London as a whole would have an interest in supporting the sort of investment we need here. Further, economies of scale are likely to make its management easier. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but – as may be noticed – I’m becoming more and more convinced that localism has to be focused on natural political and economic localities, and in London, that means London.
An exchange in comments on a recent blog by Jolyon Maugham about the difficulties of structuring a sin tax
reminded me of a posting I made in June 2014 on my local forum, but which is now only visible to registered users. Jolyon’s blog showed the normal regressive pattern for indirect taxes of the two UK taxes most usually considered as being on sin
taking his numbers from an ONS spreadsheet.
As someone who can be quite moralistic about burning fossil fuels, and imagining that richer people might spend more on them in proportion to their income, I wondered whether the pattern would be different. In fact it isn’t – ‘Duty on hydrocarbon oils & Vehicle Excise Duty’ behaves by income quintile much like alcohol duties, but raising about twice as much.
So let’s drop the moralising, and ask what are luxury goods in the sense that
demand increases more than proportionally as income rises, and is a contrast to a “necessity good”, for which demand increases proportionally less than income
That ONS spreadsheet has a detailed breakdown of income by quintiles, but nothing about expenditure, other than forms of expenditure with special taxes, such as alcohol. It would be interesting to see such a cross-sectional study, but my local Forum posting I referred to commented on a longitudinal study for the US
written up in The Atlantic
At the time I wrote
… this chart shows food as a necessity, and entertainment as a luxury – which is what you’d expect. Spending on healthcare as a proportion of income has increased a bit with the explosion of prosperity of the last 100 years, so counts as a luxury on this definition too – but that will be mainly just expenditure in the last few years of life, Overwhelmingly, however, it’s housing which has become the major apparently luxury expenditure item. Partly this will be because much spending on housing really is luxury, as economists understand it – if most of us have a bit more money, we probably will spend it on making our houses nicer. Even so, it feels too much to me, and I suspect reflects the unnecessary expense of housing as people have moved to cities where excessive constraints have been put on the expansion of the housing supply, so pushing up prices.
but in the context of tax policy, if there have to be indirect taxes, only those on property taxes can be significant and progressive.
Say hurtful things about the Saudis
I had 45 minutes before rejoining family members in the Edwardian Tea Rooms. I can’t say I like Pre-Raphaelites much, but their presence in Birmingham Museum felt like a clue to imagining how life felt in the Chamberlains’ era of high civic pride. It was Art, intense, and obviously with a meaning.
Looking at Holman Hunt’s portrait of Rossetti
a complete stranger, in his mid thirties, approached me and started talking about the paintings, and his feelings about them. His favourite was a huge landscape, with mountains which reminded him of Kashmir – I guess this one
in the rotunda, before the Pre-Raphaelite rooms. I said I’d never seen the Himalayas, although this year I had been to Almaty, over looked by the perpetual snow of the mountains on the other side of the Tibetan plateau.
But he went on to mention the religious paintings around us, and that he enjoyed going into churches, even though such paintings were not allowed in his religion. I mentioned that in Almaty I’d been inside a mosque – and he wanted to know how I had found it. It was modern, and impressive, part paid for by Saudis, I think, and there was no special event going on. It seemed very calm and relaxed, with a few men sitting round the edges, or lying down. Only after a while had it dawned on me that there were no women. I told him how afterwards my wife described the women’s entrance, and the limited space allowed them, and that this was a bit disturbing.
He wanted to apologise, and say there was nothing in the Quran to say things had to be like that, and went on, not thinking that I would have heard of her, to tell me about the bravery of Malala. He wanted to explain that details of Islamic practice, such as men being allowed up to four wives, needed to be understood in historical context, since prior to Islam, women’s lot was far worse. Did I know that the veil was pre-Islamic? As it happens, I did, thanks to watching the recent Amanda Foreman series, the Ascent of Woman. I asked him if he had seen it too, but it seems not.
I remembered a Holman Hunt painting I’d just seen in the previous room, “The Lantern Maker’s Courtship, A Street Scene in Cairo”
which I’d just read as depicting, more than 100 years ago, a challenge to the Islamic code. Had he seen it? Apparently not, so we went back to look at it. Next to it, and dominating the room, was another Holman Hunt, Oil Painting – The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple
I explained that the woman in grey was Bibi Maryam, and the story of Jesus in the Temple – which as spelt out on the frame around the painting, in gothic letters and the old-fashioned language of the King James Version – “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business”. He responded with a story of Mary being condemned for being pregnant without being married, and unable to defend herself, except by appealing to Jesus within her womb, who was miraculously able to speak out, and justify his mother.
Imagining, through attitudes to art, how life felt 130 years ago is one thing, but imagining how it feels to be a thoughtful Muslim today is another – not necessarily more difficult, but rather more urgent. I thought of giving him an email address, to stay in touch, but I didn’t, and allowed myself to submit to family duty, and a cheerful pot of tea with carrot cake back in the Edwardian Tea room.
I wonder why I was chosen for this conversation. Maybe he has collared many other people in this way, but even so, it felt as if he was in some kind of agony; I know I would be if I could not find people with whom to exchange ideas. I hope he can find a place for his thoughts, and I’m struck that, little as I like the Pre-Raphaelites, they still work as public art.
Maybe just because I’d never been in Central Asia before, I was amazed at the bio-diversity of some waste ground between our flat and the major road nearby in Astana. I’ve had a go at identifying the genera at least, but I’m not up to this for most of the grasses.
Was this recently turned ground, revealing the flora of the original steppe? Where had it come from?
To help make sense of the geology, the best source I can find on line is this
and also this series of diagrams illustrating the geological history by the same author, Dr. Stefan Lang
which include links to some more photos. From a research home page for Dr. Lang, it seems he was studying the geology here between 1996 & 2001
Here are my photos as a NextGen gallery of reduced images for easier loading. Originals available.
I’ve never been in a place like the Charyn Canyon before, and all the flora was new to me. I think I know the genus for some, but that’s about all. I avoided the plants near the campsite, since these were obvious introduced, but I suspect some others are as well – one looks like a Californian Poppy – Eschscholtzia – but on googling it seems this is only native to California & Mexico.
Here they are as a NextGen gallery. I’ve reducing the size so they won’t be too slow loading, but if anyone wants to help me identify them, I can send the originals.