Luton on Sunday finally reports on the Police Authority row

I noticed in this Sunday’s edition of the Luton on Sunday that they had finally got around to reporting on the row that is taking place over Luton’s representatives on the Bedfordshire Police Authority.

It is about a month since I was wondering on this blog why they were not covering this story. The crucial meeting that left Luton without any representation on the police authority was on the 20th May, so it has taken them a while to catch up. But I’m glad they’ve got there in the end!

Achievement six: Founding Luton Culture

On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.

The final achievement I want to highlight in this series of posts is the one that means the most to me. This is the work that I did to create Luton Culture.

In short this is the story of the actions I took as an Executive member on the Council to both protect and enhance Luton’s cultural services, against a background of financial pressure on the Council, by the transfer of the museum, arts and library services into an independent charity.

In common with many other local authorities Luton Borough Council had already gone through the process of transferring the operation of its swimming pools and leisure centres in to a ‘not for profit’ sports and leisure trust. It had set up Active Luton which had begun operating in November 2005.

The creation of Active Luton had also resulted in substantial savings to the Council’s revenue budget by switching the source of the funding to London Luton Airport Limited, the company which receives the profits from the Council’s ownership of London Luton Airport. By funding an independent charitable trust in this way Gift Aid can be claimed on what is paid to the trust and this is a substantial amount of extra revenue which results in a saving to the council.

The fact that this model of transferring cultural and leisure services from the Council into an independent trust had been successfully tried in Luton it was natural for the Council to consider whether the same model could be applied to other services.

So in February 2006, as a result of the budget process, it was proposed to create a museums trust to manage Luton’s two museums and achieve savings as result.

This is when I enter the picture. I had been a member of the Council’s Executive as part of the minority Liberal Democrat administration that has run the Council since 2004. My portfolio up until that point had been mainly environmental and transport issues but after the annual council in May 2006 I was asked to take on additional responsibility for cultural, leisure and community services.

Some of the earliest discussions I had in this new role were about establishing the proposed museums trust. I found no resistance from the council officers to the principle of transferring these kinds of services into an independent trust but they were understandably worried about the practical implications. After starting to work on developing the detailed proposals for how to create the museums trust they had begun to question its viability.

At the root of their concerns was a question of size.

There was considerable doubt whether an independent trust created from the museums service alone was sustainable. In order to operate it would need to be able to perform new functions, develop new governance structures, and have a new level of strategic leadership. It was felt that this service on its own would not have the critical mass to take on these tasks.

For me as the portfolio-holder it soon became obvious that I had a choice between abandoning the idea altogether, and seeking to find the budgeted for savings from elsewhere, or to look at expanding the number of services transferred in to the new trust. As we examined the options the idea of creating a more broadly based “cultural services trust” began to form.

Being involved in the early stages of the development of this idea were for me one of the best examples I have come across of a good working relationship between an elected local politician and a professional local government officer leading to positive change. Here I want to pay tribute to the work of Peter Jones who at the time was the Head of Service for Leisure and Community at Luton Borough Council. Peter was responsible for a significant amount of the heavy lifting involved in getting the trust off the ground and ensuring the transfer went smoothly. His role was also crucial in those early discussions.

I met regularly with Peter in the last half of 2006 to talk through our ideas of how a cultural services trust would work. Although at that point I had only been a councillor for three years, and an executive member for just two, I had already become frustrated by many aspects of how local government worked and the restrictions often placed on an elected member’s ability to achieve change. So I was immediately attracted to what was becoming a very bold initiative.

During these discussions I became conscious that if I wanted to protect these services, which I very much did, this was probably the best, possibly the only realistic, way of doing so. At the same time as working on this idea I was involved in making painful cuts in other areas of the council. This was unpleasant experience and certainly not what I had become involved in local politics to do. So the possibility of working on a project that would throw a shield around services that I and local people valued was something I wanted to grasp. So I quickly became very excited by the possibilities that establishing a broadly based cultural services trust would open up.

My enthusiasm and ambitions for the idea of this trust was nicely complemented, and at times necessarily reined in by, the cool headed professionalism of Peter Jones. Understandably as the Head of Service his concerns were to manage his staff’s workload, to maintain morale within the services, ensure the continuity of existing service provision, and to meet his obligations to members. He saw many of the potential pitfalls and problems and worked hard to ensure they were avoided. I think his diplomatic skills were often tested too.

Together we established the idea of a cultural services trust as a valid and achievable aim for the Council to pursue. We also developed what was to become our mantra – our desire to protect and enhance services.

It is obvious that a key driver here was the need to find financial savings. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed that widening the scope of the proposed trust beyond museums alone would mean that the council would be able to achieve even greater savings. But we both felt very strongly that this development couldn’t be just about saving money alone.

In considering the future of the Council’s cultural services I was conscious that the majority of them were discretionary provision. The Council had no legal obligation to provide them. So it would be these services that would be at greater risk of being cut when money needed to be found. In the prevailing climate it was almost inevitable that because of their discretionary nature the amount spent on these services would decline over time. If they remained as part of the Council proposals for individual cuts to what they did would continue to be thrown into the mix during each budget round. Each year parts of these services would be put at risk and the likelihood was that over time they would be seriously diminished.

I couldn’t do much about the background picture of ever tightening financial circumstances. Yet I believed that by changing the structure through which these services were delivered we could find a way to help to protect them from the “salami slicing” process of a saving here and a saving there each year until there was nothing left. Trust status was a method we could use to protect them as much as possible from that inevitability.

However, I was also convinced that if this was a purely defensive measure then it would not succeed.

Firstly any new organisation we set up had to have genuine independence. If this was conceived solely as a mechanism for saving money then, not only would we be likely to fall foul of charity law, but the new organisation would not be able to function properly. It could potentially lead to an even worse outcome for the services involved. We may be able to find a way to protect the funding streams but that alone would not secure a long term future. We had to do it in a way that enhanced these services ability to develop and encourage the theme to move towards a sustainable model for their continuation.

We wanted the move to an independent trust to open the potential for making use of other sources of funding. We also wanted to maintain a public service ethos for these services but at the same time to give them greater freedom of movement outside of the constraints of a local government environment. Above all this was an opportunity for these services to find a way to do things differently, not only more efficiently but we hoped more effectively.

From this we developed our principle of ‘protect and enhance’ that underpinned everything we were trying to achieve with this process.

I had become certain that the creation of a broadly based cultural services trust was very much the right thing to do to safeguard the future of the arts, museums and library services in Luton. I also started to feel passionately that this was an opportunity to create something of great and lasting value to the community of the town. But I was also aware that it was a very bold and radical move. I doubted whether other councillors would share my level of certainty and enthusiasm. It was up to me to be an advocate for the idea at a political level and to work to push it through.

First I had to convince my fellow Executive members and my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat council group of the merits of the idea. I was also concerned about the attitude that the main Labour opposition group would take to the proposal. The Council had only moved to establish Active Luton after a long and drawn out process of consultation and all-party discussion within the Council. While I wanted to establish as much consensus as possible the circumstances didn’t really allow for a similar process. So I was aware that if the proposal met significant opposition it would likely fail.

Fortunately, the general reaction the idea received from members across the council was cautious scepticism rather than any outright hostility. They were willing to explore the idea and be open to being convinced. I secured agreement from the Liberal Democrat group to develop the proposal further.

The Executive made the decision in December 2006 to confirm the creation of the museums trust but crucially it also decided to investigate the feasibility of transferring other cultural services into that organisation. A final decision was to come to a future meeting of the Executive.

We were now exploring the possibility of creating a museums trust as an initial vehicle and then growing it over time by the phased transfer of further services. However, we soon realised that there were further practical problems with this approach. It had become clear that an even more radical move was necessary if we wanted the transfer to work. So the approach was changed to one where the transfer of the museums service would be delayed and the transfer of the other services speeded up. This would result in the transfer of the museums, arts and library services at the same time to a single cultural services trust.

These proposals were consulted on with staff and discussed with members. They were also taken to the relevant scrutiny committee in March 2007. In April 2007 the Executive at my recommendation made the decision to transfer the museums, arts and library services into a separate organisation. It asked the council’s officers to continue with their work on the detailed commissioning arrangements and report to a further executive for final approval.

A new set of local elections were held in May 2007 that ended the Liberal Democrat administration and returned a Labour majority. The plans to develop a cultural services trust had come a long way since the initial discussions in the summer of the previous year but the final decision had yet to be taken. If they wanted to the new Labour administration could call a halt to the whole thing. It was frustrating to be sat on the opposition benches knowing that the fate of a project that I had put some much into and care so deeply about was in the hands of others.

I am sure they looked carefully at the details and I imagine that the financial arguments in favour were persuasive. But they could have easily felt that these services naturally belonged as part of the Council and seen this project to externalise them as a dangerous step too far. So it is to the Labour group’s credit that they saw the merits of going ahead with the cultural services trust and allowed the process to continue.

The Executive took its final decision to go ahead in February 2008. Not being in at the finish was also frustrating. They were some aspects of how the Labour administration chose to set up the trust that I would have done slightly differently. But those are really just minor irritations. The key thing was that the project was going to make it from those initial discussions I had had with Peter Jones to a reality.

The model chosen for the new organisation was a Not for Profit Distributing Organisation (NPDO). An NPDO is a form of business structure which can operate at a profit but is required to reinvest those profits into services or growth. It was thought that this model would give the new organisation the right level of flexibility. The NPDO vehicle was to be Luton Cultural Services Trust Limited, a company limited by guarantee which also had charitable status. A subsidiary trading company through which the Trust’s purely commercial activities could take place was also established.

Luton Cultural Services Trust came into existence on the 1st March 2008.

Since then we’ve renamed it to the friendlier Luton Culture and it has firmly established itself as an independent charity. I think it is clear that the objective of protecting and enhancing the museums, libraries and arts services in Luton have been achieved by this move. While Luton Culture is by no means insulated from the impact of public spending cuts we are now facing, these important and valued services are in a much stronger position as part of an independent charitable trust than they would be otherwise.

I am extremely proud of my role in its creation and have continued my involvement as a member of the Board of Trustees. If I could claim to have done only one thing of value during my eight years as a councillor this is the one I would choose.

Luton Borough Council and climate change

I wrote in a previous post about how during my time as an elected councillor on Luton Borough Council I got the Council to sign up to the Nottingham Declaration on tackling climate change in 2006 and how that was used as a lever to get the Council to take the issue seriously.

On two occasions last year I was asked to be a guest speaker and facilitator at the Climate Change Leadership Academy organised by Local Government Improvement and Development. These two day courses for elected members were designed to show how local councils can take action to prevent and mitigate climate change and empower councillors to lead that work within their authorities. I was asked to bring insights from my experience from Luton to share with the other participants. This blog post is based on the presentation that I gave at these training days.

Luton Borough Council has achieved a lot on the Climate Change agenda since 2006.

The Council’s current corporate plan contains two core aims relating to the environment and climate change.

  • Successfully Adapting and Mitigating for Climate Change
  • Reducing the consumption of water, energy, materials and minimising waste, including support for renewable energy generation

The Council has developed a comprehensive set of strategies to implement those aims.

There is the Carbon Management Plan a strategy for reducing the council’s own carbon emissions which was developed with support from the Carbon Trust. There is also the Climate Change Adaptation Plan the strategy for adaptation. Then there is the Local Area Carbon Emissions Reduction Action Plan a strategy for fulfilling the council’s role in encouraging the reduction of carbon emissions within the wider community which was developed with support from the Energy Saving Trust. Finally there is the LBC Environment Framework Strategy.

There has been the implementation of various energy saving measures within the Council. This has meant a 31% reduction in CO2 emissions from LBC buildings, from 41,930 tons in 2008/09 to 29,040 tons 2009/10. It has set a target of reducing C02 by 11% funded by the council (a further 14% if external funding secured) by 2014. It has an aspirational target of 60% reduction by 2019. The specific actions have included; the roll out of smart metering including to schools, libraries and community centres; the installation of computerised energy management systems in some council buildings; and energy awareness communications to council staff. It has also done work on household energy efficiency through the fuel poverty team.

Other initiatives have included; in 2008 commissioning an “Eco Footprint for the Area of Luton”; adding objectives on renewable energy to planning policy, requiring that all reports to the Executive must have considered environmental implications, and carrying out community engagement through the “My Climate” initiative. One project involved an aerial thermal mapping survey of the whole of Luton the results of which are available online.

Another major thing that the council has done is to ‘mainstream’ climate change adaptation. It has adopted the National Indicator 188 (planning to Adapt to Climate Change – planning for a changing climate) as a key council target. Apparently Luton was the only local authority in the East of England to have reached Level 3 by March 2010 which involves having a detailed action plan in place to deal with the effect of climate change on the Council’s ability to provide key services.

Finally, to better take forward this work the council has also recently established a dedicated Climate Change Team.

I have some criticisms of what the Council has done. Given that I believe that this issue is of crucial importance I want to see the Council go further and faster. I have been particularly frustrated by the pace of progress. I am also concerned about the balance between adaptation and mitigation. Whatever we do now climate change will happen and so local authorities will have to adapt themselves and their communities to it. But I don’t believe this should become an acceptance that we only adapt because there is nothing we can do to stop the process. We must at the same time be doing all we can to reduce carbon emissions and to slow and stop climate change itself.

I also have worries about the level of commitment from elected members. I never felt that the two Labour environment portfolio-holders who followed me had the same level of commitment to the issue that I did. I also think there was a lack of engagement with the issue across all parties in the council chamber, including some genuine climate change sceptics amongst the Tory group. There is also a real danger that given the financial circumstance faced by local authorities climate change work becomes a casualty. Maintaining member commitment and leadership when councillors will be faced with so many other pressures may prove difficult.

But I may be being overly pessimistic. Although I am no longer amongst them, I hope that members of the Liberal Democrat group will continue to raise climate change as an issue and if we are lucky there may be an environmentalist or two amongst the new intake of Labour councillors. What does give me comfort is that it is clear that climate change has become a mainstream part of the council’s agenda and that is unlikely to change.

An overly considered review of the Social Liberal Forum conference

If it was food for thought you were after then the conference organised by the Social Liberal Forum at City University on Saturday was a huge success. There was challenging thinking and debate across a wide range of topics. Plus some thought provoking presentations from some excellent speakers. So I came away with ideas for several things to write about.

Possibly too many. As, aside from other things getting in the way, I have struggled to get my thoughts about the conference into a sensible order. Indeed this is my third attempt to write this post. I gave up the previous two as trying to make a coherent story out of too many conflicting ideas made them impossible to write.

One thing I am clear about though is that I am glad I went. I want to thank all those involved in organising what was a very worthwhile event. The feeling I got from the people around me was that most of them found the day both enjoyable and useful.

My personal highlights were:

  • The clear indications that pressure for further banking reform is likely to be put on the government by sections of the Liberal Democrats
  • Both Vince Cable and Simon Hughes talking about the importance of land taxation
  • The powerful contribution, more a call to arms than a speech, from Will Hutton
  • Vince Cable’s “Plan A +”
  • The fascinating discussion on community politics and the big society
  • and a vintage Simon Hughes performance – arriving late and then saying “and lastly” several times during his speech

I also think it was a useful exercise for the Liberal Democrats.

In his speech in the opening session James Graham argued that a tendency towards anti-intellectualism within the Liberal Democrats is “one of the biggest challenges we face as a party”. On this point I strongly agree with James. I’ve started to argue myself that the party’s ideas cupboard is far too bare and that, along with a lack of activities designed to re-stock it, is one of the key areas of vulnerability for us within the coalition. If it proves to be the Tories who have the more innovative and thought through ideas, which in several areas seems to be the case, then it will be harder for the Liberal Democrats to influence and make a distinctive contribution to the policy agenda of the coalition government. We need to take concrete steps to do something about this problem and Saturday was a good start. If further events of this quality help to tackle that vulnerability and to challenge that anti-intellectualism then the SLF is doing the party a great service.

The other useful function that I think the conference performed was to do with the Liberal Democrats’ relations with the Labour party. We had two Labour speakers, both from Compass, who talked about the need for us to talk to each other and over come the tribalism in both parties. To be fair they both received a rather mixed reception. This isn’t a particularly fruit-full environment for Lib-Lab cooperation and I have mixed feelings about it myself. My view is that we shouldn’t be too distracted with talking to Labour while we still have so much work to do to in finding the right balance of co-operation versus competition with the Conservatives. If we want to talk to a bunch of right-wing authoritarians then isn’t it more useful to talk to the ones we share a government with rather than the ones in opposition? However, the pragmatist in me knows that we need to keep the lines of communication with Labour open and I believe that the pluralists associated with Compass in particular are a positive force within politics. If the SLF, and events like these, are to be the vehicle through which a dialogue with Labour takes place then, on balance, that is going to be a good thing.

However, on my way to the conference I had wondered whether my prejudices about the Social Liberal Forum would be confirmed or confounded by the day. I have to say that they were mostly confirmed.

If there was a unifying theme to the day I think it would have been “we are the mainstream”.

Several speakers made the argument that social liberalism is at the heart of what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Amongst the phrases I heard used were “we are the soul of the Liberal Democrats; “the mainstream voice of the Party”; and “we represent the majority”. We are a social liberal party they claimed.

And in one important sense they are right. If you take those European countries that have more than one liberal party and compare them to the Liberal Democrats we are clearly closer to those that describe themselves as social liberal. Historically, as Will Hutton powerfully reminded us, we are the inheritors of the social liberal tradition of British politics. We are the children of T H Green, Hobhouse, Keynes and Beveridge. The party has grown from and been influenced by that tradition. In that sense we are all social liberals.

But by the same logic we are all economic liberals too. Also you can say we are classical liberals and for that matter Whigs and Radicals. We are inheritors of the ideas and movements that have made up the different moments of history of the development of British liberalism. Indeed David Hall-Mathews, the Chair of the SLF, clearly stated that you can be both a social liberal and an economic liberal. He wanted to emphasis the “Forum” part of their name. The SLF is predominately a forum for debate that sits within the mainstream of the party was the clear implication. James Graham has gone further;

“I don’t think that portraying tensions between “social” and “economic” liberals within the party is some kind of ideological schism is helpful or especially meaningful. Within the Lib Dems, the debate over how public services are delivered ought to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based.”

I agree 100% with that statement.

But here things get at best confused and at worst disingenuous. It is clear and obvious that the SLF have a particular policy agenda that they want to advocate within the Liberal Democrats. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed I agree with much of it. So even if they are primarily about providing a forum for discussion then they can’t pretend that they are neutral referees of it. They want to steer that discussion in a particular direction. Again nothing essentially wrong with that provided the agenda is out in the open.

Yet there was another, and contradictory, theme coming out of the day. This was most clearly expressed by, but not only by, Richard Grayson whose argument was essentially that the purpose of the SLF was to rescue the Liberal Democrats for the members from the small clique of “orange bookers” who had captured it. At least to me that seemed to be the essence of his argument. Others were less extreme than Richard but it seemed to me that there was another, more immediate and less philosophical, sense in which the claim “we are the mainstream” was being made. That is to make views that don’t fit within a given definition of mainstream social liberalism be seen as fringe and to some extent illegitimate.

Within the Liberal Democrats it is perfectly legitimate to argue for a more “socially liberal” approach to the delivery of public services. Yet if that debate is to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based then it has to be equally legitimate to argue for a more “economically liberal” approach. That cannot take place if those who argue for the latter are at the same time portrayed as being fringe figures.

I am not sure that those members of the SLF who confidently proclaim that they represent the mainstream of the party have the evidence to back up that claim. There are party members who do define themselves as economic liberals and reject the label of social liberal. There are many more, like myself, who wouldn’t want to claim either label, at least not in any meaningful way. If members of the SLF represent “the soul of the Liberal Democrats” does that mean that others have no soul?

This could be dismissed as froth. The rough and tumble of internal party politics. Liberals have a long and honourable tradition of mistrusting our leaders and we are all the better for it. But I think it restricts the usefulness of the SLF and limits their ideas and objectives. In seeking to exclude the “orange bookers” they may diminish the influence of a few misguided libertarians and  apply a corrective to the populism that is the result of the anti-intellectualism that James Graham has described. But they will equally excluded many who are seeking new and innovative ideas for public service reform and those whose interests extend beyond arguing about the size and nature of the state.

I repeat what I said on Saturday;

“I haven’t signed up to the SLF. I don’t really want to choose sides in what is a mostly artificial, and often sterile, debate between the social liberal and economic liberal wings of the Liberal Democrats.”

I am very sympathetic to much of what the SLF are trying to achieve. I am impressed by much of what they have already achieved and I am confident that they will continue to play a really vital and useful role within the Liberal Democrats over the next few years. They can organise a damned good conference! But I’m afraid too much of what they are about is still locked into that sterile debate. So, I wish them well, but I won’t be signing up any time soon.

Would you like some tea?

I’m aware that I should be writing up my reactions to the Social Liberal Forum conference, including my bloggers’ interview with Evan Harris, as well as carrying on with my other series of posts. However, as you can see from the photograph below, I have been somewhat unusually detained over the last few days. Something that also coincided with my fortieth birthday.

Normal service will resume shortly.

I hope…..

 

On my way to the Social Liberal Forum conference #slfconf

I’m writing this on the train heading in to London for today’s Social Liberal Forum conference.

I haven’t signed up to the SLF. I don’t really want to choose sides in what is a mostly artificial, and often sterile, debate between the social liberal and economic liberal wings of the Liberal Democrats. But we desperately need groups who want to debate and argue for ideas and I have so far been impressed by a lot of what the SLF have achieved.

So I am looking forward to the conference. I expect a bit of self congratulation given the influential role the SLF have had in the NHS reforms. But there is a very good line up of speakers. I will be interested to see if my prejudices are confirmed or confounded.

Why climate change matters to local government

In writing about climate change I am aware that I am opening myself up to those who want to debate the science of it all and deny that it is happening. I will be honest in saying that I desperately want to avoid getting into that kind of conversation.

There is a global scientific consensus that says that climate change is real. As a liberal I am bound to say that people are free to challenge that consensus. Scepticism, debate and challenge, when done properly, are healthy and often extremely necessary things. However, I am not a climate scientist. I have no inclination to attempt to become one or indeed to become an amateur expert on the science. So I take as my starting point an acceptance of that global scientific consensus. I choose to trust the scientists that say that climate change is real. I also accept the argument that it is man made and is caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What I am interested in is what the political response to that reality should be.

In short, if you want to debate the truth of whether climate change is happening or not please go somewhere else.

The science tells us that we have a problem. Projections suggest that in the UK we will experience trends of warmer, wetter winters and hotter drier summers. We will have less rainfall during the summer and heavier rainfall in the winter, potentially causing more flooding. These changes will have impact both on agriculture and on the nature of our natural environment.

While these projections vary the impact of these changes in forty to fifty years could be catastrophic. Even in the more benign scenarios they mean significant changes to our lifestyles. So not taking action is not an option. The fact that it is necessary to tackle this issue on a global level does not meant that we in the UK do not have a responsibility to do our bit.

The role of local councils is key to this. The Local Government Association, in a 2007 report, made the case that;

“The unique features of local government – its democratic mandate, its close proximity to citizens through the services it delivers, its regulatory and planning responsibilities and its strategic role working with public, private and voluntary sector partners, and regional bodies –mean that it is on the frontline in tackling climate change.”

The role of local authorities is a dual one. They have a responsibility to carry out both mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is action to address the causes of climate change. Adaptation is action to address the impacts of climate change.

It is I think widely accepted that local government can make a real difference to environmental sustainability through the services it provides. With things like it’s obvious role in waste and recycling, energy saving schemes, environmentally aware procurement, and so on. It is also generally accepted, although in my impression not particularly well practised, that it has a role in providing public information and education. On the adaptation side of things it has become common practice to include adapting to the impacts of climate change as part of a local authority’s emergency planning responsibilities.

But there are three other key areas that it seems to me local government has not yet, with exceptions, accepted the importance of.

The first is the hugely important issue of land use planning. To truly tackle climate change we have to change the way we work, the way we travel, the way shop to a less carbon hungry model. We need to develop a more sustainable economy and lifestyle. We also must do this in a way that enhances and not diminishes our quality of life. Key to this will have to be making changes to the physical spaces around us and how we work within them. The only bodies that will be able to achieve these changes will be local councils using their planning powers. Unfortunately not enough councils have yet developed the understanding and capacity to carry out the proactive planing approach that this requires.

Second is the new and powerful role that local councils will have in the production of renewable energy at a local level. The new coalition government have removed those restrictions on councils that prevented them from selling renewable energy and the new Green Investment Bank will soon be available to provide funding for renewable energy projects. What is needed now is for local councils with imagination and enterprise to start developing renewable energy schemes in their local communities.

Finally, there is transport and transport planning. Outside of the few nationally important projects, such as high speed rail, local government is the only body that can really lead the level of changes to our transport system that we need to make a significant shift to sustainability. Although in this area local government is severely restricted by a lack of powers. In particular over bus companies.

So the participation of local government is vital to any attempt to both mitigate the causes and adapt to the consequences of climate change.

For me if locally elected councillors are not ensuring that their councils are taking on climate change as an issue then they are failing in their responsibility to the people they represent. It is such an important issue that if local politicians are not talking about this then they are failing in providing the community leadership that it is their job to provide.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Achievement five: Tackling climate change at Luton Borough Council

On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.

Looking back one of the things that I am clear that I have done during my time as a councillor has been to be a champion for the issue of climate change within the authority. Getting the council to take seriously its responsibilities towards playing its role in tackling climate change developed into one the things on the top of my personal agenda. I am sure there were ways I could have been a better advocate for the cause but by being the councillor that would keep going on about it I kind of made it my issue. So much so that my ward colleague would frequently talk about “Andy’s global warming” as if I was personally responsible for it all.

While it was an issue that I kept coming back to when in opposition, asking questions in council and so on, it was what I did during my time as portfolio-holder with responsibility for environmental issues between 2004 and 2007 where I made the most significant impact. This is the story of how an initiative by elected members was responsible for putting the issue of climate change on to the agenda of Luton Borough Council and as a result gave council officers the opportunity and space to make solid progress on the issue.

After the minority Liberal Democrat administration was elected in 2003 in the area of the environment our initial priorities were street services and transport. Climate change was not really on the council’s agenda both at member and officer level. However, in 2006 I with my colleague Martin Howes, the then finance portfolio-holder, decided to set out to change that.

The key decision we took was to get the Council to sign up to the Nottingham Declaration in late 2006. The Nottingham Declaration is a pledge by local authorities to systematically address the causes of climate change and to prepare their community for its impacts. It was launched in October 2000 and updated in 2005, and has been signed by over three hundred English local councils.

It is important to make clear that this was a member initiative. It was something that Martin and I chose to do and got the backing of the Liberal Democrat group for. No officer had suggested to me that we should sign up to the declaration. Nor do I remember being lobbied to do so from outside. It was something that we cooked up together.

We were also very keen that this would be more than just talk. We saw signing up to the Nottingham Declaration as a lever to put tackling climate change on the agenda. Martin was keen to get financial gains from energy efficiency and I wanted to widen the scope of the Council’s approach to environmental policy, but what we most wanted to achieve was to get the to Council to take practical actions. So much so that I can clearly remember Martin and I sitting together to rewrite the officer recommendations on the first key report to the executive in order to make them more action orientated.

We also saw it as important to establish clear officer responsibility for taking this agenda forward. In the beginning this turned out to be the Council’s Scrutiny Manager working alongside an officer working group that was established. We also, in order to ensure that this process gained momentum, asked for regular reports to the executive on progress for the first key year. I have collated and uploaded the paper trail of the various council reports if anyone is interested in looking at the detail.

Our approach to taking forward the Council’s work on climate change was threefold:

  • First we wanted to identify some quick wins. We wanted to identify things of benefit that could be achieved within a short time frame.
  • Second we wanted the work to be cost neutral. We looked for actions that would fund themselves from savings or that would bring in external funding.
  • Third, we did want some engagement with the public on the issue of climate change, but we thought this would only be credible if the council was practising what it preached. So we saw the priority at the start being about “putting our own house in order”.

So what did we achieve with this initiative?

The key impact that we had acting as elected members was to provide a space and structure for officers to make progress. The work that followed the signing of the declaration highlighted existing good practice and allowed officers to make connections with other strategies and activities across the council. It also put in place new mechanisms that allowed the officers to develop new initiatives.

So our key achievement was to embed the climate change agenda into the work of the council. This work has continued through the change of administration in 2007 and continues today.

On two occasions last year I was asked to be a guest speaker and facilitator at the Climate Change Leadership Academy organised by Local Government Improvement and Development and run by the excellent Steve Waller. These two day courses for elected members were designed to show how local councils can take action to prevent and mitigate climate change and empower councillors to lead that work within their authorities. I was asked to bring insights from my experience from Luton to share with the other participants.

I chose to talk about how we had used the Nottingham Declaration as a lever to get the issue on the council’s agenda and this blog post is based on the first part of the presentation that I gave at these training days. I have made the slides available online for anyone who is interested in looking at the whole thing.

Going back through my notes I’ve realised that there is a lot more I could say about climate change at LBC and the role of local government in tackling the issues more generally. I certainly want to talk a bit more about what practical actions signing up to the declaration led to. It appears that I have the material for another few blog posts!

Achievement four: The Luton Summer Festival

On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.

I remember the occasion well. The architects that Luton Borough Council had employed to come up with the design for the new St George’s Square were giving a presentation to executive members, me amongst them, and other councillors about what they wanted the new Square to look like. The architects firm, Gillespies (despite having one of those awful impractical websites that architect practices seem to favour), had done a very good job. The designs they presented that day didn’t look all that much different to what we ended up with and the Square has gone on to win several awards.

So as we watched the presentation I think most of us were rather impressed. But there was one sequence in their presentation that struck me more than the other bits and gave me an idea. This was a real ‘light-bulb’ moment.

They showed a couple of slides that outlined how the Square could accommodate a stage and theatre style seating in a number of different configurations. Viewing these I suddenly realised that in the redeveloping the Square we would be doing more than reviving a tired and underused space in the town centre, we would also be creating an outdoor space that could be used for a number of different activities. An unexpected bonus of the new development was that we would be giving the Town a new venue.

I came away from that meeting excited by the possibilities. While the redevelopment of the Square was a really good project in itself I was now aware of the opportunity to give it some added value. The question was then how could we make use of this new venue.

In the following months, as the new Square was being built, I set out to do two things. The first was to ensure that early discussions were held with the relevant council officers about what we could do with the Square. The second was during the budget process to secure a modest pot of money that could be used to part fund whatever it was we were going to do. I achieved this and this meant that when the new Square was opened a whole programme of activities were planned for the first year.

I knew that to some extent this would be an experiment. This was a new facility. It would take some time to work out how to use it. You would need to discover the practical implications of making the space work. For instance what equipment would be needed and how the space could best be managed. It would also be necessary to work out what kind activities worked in that space and what did not. But I felt it was important that the Council should be brave enough to allow this experiment to take place so that we could learn how to make best use of this new asset.

The hard work of conducting this experiment was mostly done by the staff of the arts service, the team headed up by Andy Grays, which at that point was still part of the Council. But I don’t think without me giving the political space in which to explore how to use the Square the Council would have done as much as it did. So I feel that insisting that the Council take a lead in developing this programme of activities is an achievement.

Two things came out of this that I was particularly pleased about. The first was that for several weeks during the winter of 2007 there was an ice rink in the Square. I thought this worked really well and I don’t quite understand why it hasn’t been brought back.

The second was the first Luton Summer festival. This series of concerts and performances held during the summer of 07 wasn’t quite what I personally envisioned. The choice of acts wasn’t quite right, the layout of the Square felt over engineered with too many barriers and such, and it was discovered that selling tickets didn’t really work. But that was the whole point of the experiment – too learn how to make the venue work. But what it did do was prove that  the new St George’s Square could be used as a venue to provide entertainment to the people of the Town.

And the the Summer Festival has continued. Sometimes it has been unlucky with the weather, but for four years it has brought a wide range of music and children’s activities to the Square. It has showcased local talent, brought life and vibrancy to the town centre, and given people a good time. So in all, I think, worthwhile.

What’s next? Part Three

Since missing out by 14 votes on being re-elected to Luton Borough Council on May 5th I’ve been taking my time to adjust to the election result and to work out what comes after and I’ve been using posts on this blog as part of my process of working things out.

I’ve posted a number of articles looking at the things that I believe I can claim to have achieved over those eight years (achievements one, two and three) with a couple more to come. I’ve yet to write about the more general conclusions about the political world I have come to having reached this point but I think I have a better idea of what they are. But I am ready to start looking to the future. So, following part one and part two, this is the third and final post in my ‘What’s Next’ series.

So what will I do now?

Well I know myself well enough to know that politics is in my blood. It is part of who I am and I will always be involved in it in one capacity or another. I also know that there is more than one way to do politics. Local government and standing for public office is one way to influence things and fight for what you believe in. But there are others.

I know that I do have something to say and that something is now backed up with the knowledge and experience I have gained from eight years of holding public office. I now also realise that I have a greater freedom to speak out. It is not in my nature to set out to be deliberately disloyal to my party, but I am aware that the restrictions, self-imposed and otherwise, that were inevitably placed on me by the fact of being an elected representative and owing a loyalty to my council group no longer apply.

I also think it unlikely that I will stand again for election to be a councillor for a good while. A number of people have said to me that “you’ll be back”. That may be true, but it won’t be for at least a decade or more. It is time for other things.

So I think the priority for my political activity may now be to concentrate on thinking, writing and debating ideas and proposals. I am struck that while we are now in government at the same time in many ways the Liberal Democrat ideas cupboard is rather bare. So this may be a good moment to give greater reign to my inner policy wonk. Although I am not entirely sure how to go about this. Any suggestions gratefully received.

As for working for Luton I remain on the Board of Trustees of Luton Culture, something I am deeply passionate about, and there are more than enough challenges there to get my teeth into. I am becoming more and more interested in the politics and management or arts and culture. It plays a vital, if often underestimated, role in people’s lives and communities. Not least in a place like Luton. It is also a sector facing tremendous challenges given the economic climate. So it would be interesting to explore and develop my knowledge and understanding of this field.

Yet I have recognised that, not least for a number of reasons of practicality, my priority is going to have to be work and career. Politics will have to take something of a back seat while I concentrate on finding the right kind of work and trying to increase my level of income. So I am now actively looking for new work and opportunities. So again, if anyone has any suggestions to where I can make good use of my talents do let me know.

So in the words of The West Wing’s President Jed Bartlett; “What’s next?”

Achievement three: A little bit of pavement in St George’s Square

On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.

The first two achievements I have talked about in these posts have been a little insubstantial. They have been about decision making, meetings, and processes. This one however is actually something that I can go and point at and say “I did that”.

One of the major achievements of the Liberal Democrat minority administration of four years ago was the refurbishment of St George’s Square. I was part of the discussions that led to this and I am tremendously proud of what we did, but I certainly wouldn’t try to claim personal credit for the new Square. However, I can claim credit for a little bit of it.

Luton residents might remember that before the Square was redone the area at the beginning of New Bedford Road outside of what is now Di Niros Italian Restaurant contained a curiously shaped little lay-by. I never really understood what this was for. Presumably it was used for deliveries, but it never seemed to make much practical sense to me.

The designs for the new St George’s Square didn’t include this piece of land, it was not seen as being part of the Square, but it was included in the plans for the cycle paths that were timed to be built alongside it. The original plans for the cycle paths made no changes to the lay-by. I thought this was rather stupid.

The whole idea of the redevelopment was to improve the environment of St George’s Square and to make it work better for residents, shoppers and the business in and around it. I thought that this should also include making changes where we could tidying up around the edges. One of the things we wanted to achieve was more spaces outside pubs, bars and restaurants for tables and chairs. Filling in that lay-by and turning it into pavement would help to achieve both of these. So I insisted to the transport officers that their plans were changed to remove the lay-by.

It may seem a little odd to claim credit for such a little bit of pavement. But this is a very clear example of something that, if I hadn’t of spoken out, would not have happened.

Notes from the BBC Social Media Summit

This week I have been watching the video on YouTube of sessions from the BBC Social Media Summit held on Friday 20 May 2011 and organised by the BBC’s College of Journalism.

These provide a fascinating snapshot of how the journalistic profession and media organisations of all types are adapting to the challenge of social media.

What follows is a couple of things that stood out for me that I thought I should make a note of:

Cultural change within organisations

The first session looking at the cultural change needed for media organisations to adapt to social media gave these insights that I think are applicable to organisations outside the world of journalism:

Meg Pickard, Head of Digital Engagement at the Guardian talked about three areas of focus, a “holy trinity” that were critical to managing and supporting the integration of social media into an organisations work:

Products: what are the supporting new technologies, or packages of technologies, that are needed by the organisation. These products are either existing ones that can be embraced, new ones created in-house or ones developed by working with third parties.

People and skills: do people understand the possibilities and have the skills to make use of social media. She placed a great emphasis on education and training to equip staff with the knowledge thy need. Once they have acquired this they should then be trusted to use social media in an intelligent manner. In developing this emphasis on education and training she talked of a “sandwich” strategy, from above senior management have to provide leadership to say that this is important and that is OK for staff to engage with social media, from below opportunities need to be given for grass roots experimentation and enthusiasm.

Editorial proposition: how does social media help to tell better stories. Where does conservation and interactivity help us to achieve what we are trying to achieve. You must think through what the value of using social media is to your organisation.

I was also interested in the point made by Raju Narisetti of the Washington Post who emphasised that key to an organisations response to social media is the use of data. “Numbers are everything in our business” he said. Social media is able to provide clear data and the use of metrics is crucial in demonstrating the business benefits of using it. You can get support for the use of social media if you can use statistics to demonstrate what impact it has.

How social media is changing the behaviour and the habits of news consumers

I also found highly informative the presentation from Nic Newman from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism who was looking at the latest data on the behaviour of users of social media.

It shows, he says, that social media works to the benefit of mainstream news organisations. The different forms of social media are not a competitor to mainstream media. Instead the two are working together in complex ways to create a new ecology of news production and consumption. Often it is social media that is driving to traffic to news sites.

There is a common idea that stories are being generated in Twitter and then picked up by the mainstream media. However, the data shows that it is mainstream media that is driving the social media agenda and not the other way round.

Of great importance are the sites and online sources that generate a significant amount of the links and discussion found in social media. These are the ‘network nodes’ and they include a very strong presence from mainstream media organisation. But we are also seeing the rise of individual journalists and commentators as significant network nodes. He says that there is a real challenge for organisations to try and become one of these nodes. There is a “race for influence” to establish your brand or you as an individual as one of these hubs.

Social media is know becoming important for traffic building. People are finding news through social media. There is a rise in social discovery. People are finding new content through there use of social media. If there is a loser it seems to be search that is losing out. For the first time we are seeing evidence of the decline of search as a method of traffic generation.

His final point was, what I thought was the big unanswered question of the summit, that social media is disrupting the business models of news organisations. In particular the difficulty of using social media alongside the use of pay-walls to generate subscription revenue.

The three legged stool

Finally, I was interested in what Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had to say about how he saw his organisation. Increasingly they see themselves as a “three legged stool” made up of;

  • Editorial
  • Commercial
  • Technology

Although he admitted that they were not strong enough in technology.

Achievement two: An intervention in the merger of Downside Infant and Junior Schools

On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.

The second achievement I thought I would talk about is one I am somewhat cautious about discussing. I have been a school governor at Downside Junior School in Luton more or less since I became a councillor.

The school is in my old ward of Challney and I thought that being a school governor would be a good way of understanding and involving myself in the life of my ward. In some ways it has been one of the richest experiences I have had. I’ve learnt things about education that I otherwise would not have known. I’ve been involved in an organisation which at the very basic level is shaping the community and improving peoples lives. It has been a pleasure to have been a part of a friendly and forward thinking school, and I have developed tremendous respect for the head teacher Mrs Thompson.

However, I have often felt that I have got more out of being a school governor than they have got out of me. I don’t think I have been a particularly good one. I haven’t been able to give the time that is needed to do the role properly and I have often missed meetings because they have clashed with other things. So I am cautious about claiming credit for something in an area where I feel that in general I have been of limited use.

The Junior School is just about to complete a merger with Downside Infants School to create a new, and very large, primary school. The work on extending and refurbishing the school buildings is almost done. A headteacher for the new school has been appointed and a few weeks ago I was helping with the interviews for the appointment of a deputy head. An awful lot of work has been done to make the process of merger, which seems to be happening relatively smoothly, happen. The credit for that should go to the staff, the headteachers of the two schools, and the governors who sat on the joint working group.

I haven’t been that much involved in the merger except for one significant moment right at the start. It is that moment that I think was an achievement of mine and I want to talk about it because it is a good example of how an elected local politician can make a real difference through a timely intervention.

Being both a councillor and on the school’s governing body I have been able to be a bit of a bridge between the school and the local education authority. I did make sure that I had occasional meetings to discuss the school with officers from the LEA. It was during some of those meetings that it became obvious to me that the long term future for the school would involve a merger and the creation of a new primary school. This was the preferred direction of the LEA and the logic of the circumstances seemed to strongly point to it.

The conclusion I came to was that given this was the direction we were heading in we ought to grasp it and do it right. There was a need to be proactive about it rather than just waiting for it to occur. Another consideration was that I new that both the headteachers of the two schools were schedule to retire and it made sense to coordinate the creation of a new school with that.

So the action that I took was to organise a meeting between both sets of school governors and officers from the LEA to discuss the possibility of merger. The meeting went well with lots of agreement and so the idea of carrying out the merger became fixed as an objective for the two schools.

Organising a meeting may not seem like much of an achievement in itself but by acting as a facilitator I think I helped to force the issue a little. Getting these discussions to happen earlier than they might have done has meant that the timing of the merger was better and that the schools themselves were more in control events.

I repeat that I was acting at the very start of the process and the heavy lifting of carrying out the merger has been done by others. But looking back I do think that my intervention was useful in making sure that this important change was got right.

There is a lot of talk within local government about “community leadership” often without any real understanding of what that is. The lesson I have learnt from this is that a key component of community leadership is about fulfilling the role of a facilitator. It involves being aware of what issues and decisions are coming down the track, understanding who are the right people needed to tackle them, and knowing when to bring them together. It is an achievement in itself to provide the right context for others to achieve.

What’s Next? Part Two

It often seems to be my fate that I find myself only truly ready to take on a particular role at the point when that role is no longer available to me.

I was for three years a member of the Executive of Luton Borough Council back when the Liberal Democrats formed a minority administration. Having only been a councillor for a year before taking on the role of a portfolio-holder and not having done anything remotely similar in the past it involved a huge amount of learning on the job. To say it was a steep learning curve would be an understatement. I was very lucky to receive some excellent training. I owe a huge debt to Erica Kemp and the others involved in the Next Generation leadership programme on which I had the good fortune to be invited to take part. I also got to work with some talented and dedicated council officers who were often very tolerant of my beginners mistakes. I know that I did achieve things but I also know that I would have achieved a hell of a lot more if I had had more of a clue about what I was supposed to be doing when I started the job. I feel I only really developed a true understanding of what that role involved and how I could make it work at around the time when we lost control of the council.

I’ve had a similar experience this year.

Politics can be a very odd thing to get involved with. Standing for elected office doubly so. To put yourself up in front of your fellow citizens and say my talents and abilities are the ones you should put your trust in and that my ideas and opinions are the ones you should vote for requires developing a somewhat unusual mind set. Lets be honest it can require a degree of self confidence, some would say arrogance, that in other situations would be seen as an unattractive character trait.

Also it is a combative activity. You may feel that in your life or at your workplace others are out to get you. This may or may not be paranoia. But if you go into politics, by definition, this will be true. All politics involves a degree of conflict. Where this conflict is over matters of principle and substance and offers a genuine choice to the electorate then it can be a healthy, often vital, thing. But it is often too easy for that conflict to drift into being about petty or trivial things, to become a personal row about slights and hurt feelings, or develop into a cycle of conflict for its own sake. I’ve found that Luton politics has a very combative, a very party political, culture and has too often involved the latter form of conflict.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with these two aspects of politics. I’ve accepted them and I’ve learned to deal with them. From the outside to some people it may have seemed that I have relished them. But the truth is that putting myself forward and dealing with the resulting conflict has always involved burning up significant amounts of emotional and psychological energy. I am not a natural politician. In order to do the things I have wanted to do I have had to invest heavily in developing a series of learned behaviours. So I have often felt ill at ease with the idea of being a politician.

I have found that this unease is most keenly felt at election time. A lot of campaigning can be very pleasant. Getting some fresh air and exercise delivering leaflets on a sunny day, often listening to music or catching up on podcasts while I do so, and then meeting up with colleagues for a beer afterwards can be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. But canvassing, knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote for you, has always been something I’ve had to steel myself to do. I’ve always had a degree of sympathy for Jehovah’s Witnesses and those people who try to persuade you to change your utility supplier, even as I am turning them away, because I know how draining it can be to go from door to door.

I’ve also at times worried about the impact that all this politics was having on my personality. There is a stereotype of a local councillor being someone whose great love is the sound of their own voice. I fear there have been too many occasions when I have appeared to embody that stereotype more closely than I would care to admit. One of the real dangers of long term exposure to local government is that it can make you, well, boring.

Now you may find all this introspection and self doubt a little trying. So you will be pleased to know that this year that changed. This election was the first election in which I have taken an active part in when I truly felt comfortable in the role of a local politician. I even felt keen to get out there and knock on peoples’ doors. I don’t whether this is greater self confidence or something else, but it felt like it fitted in a way that it never had done before.

Now you could take the view that this is evidence that I had finally been “captured by the system” and that my losing is therefore actually a lucky escape. But it does feel more than a little frustrating that the year in which I first felt fully comfortable in the role of being a local politician is the year when I stop being one.

Prevent 2.0 means money for Luton – but who is winning the argument within Government about the meaning of integration?

Yesterday the Home Secretary Theresa May announced the conclusions of the review of the Government’s counter-radicalisation strategy designed to tackle home grown terrorism and violent extremism, known as Prevent, by the independent reviewer of anti-terrorist laws Lord Carlile of Berriew.

Prevent was set up in 2007 and proved to be controversial. Both from many members of Britain’s Muslim community who felt it unfairly targeted them and from others who saw the policy as being confused and badly managed. The coalition government has accepted much of this criticism blaming the previous Labour government for mishandling the policy, and much of yesterday’s announcement reflected that. It seemed to me that the Home Secretary was arguing that future policy in this area would be based on a new and improved Prevent strategy. A sort of Prevent version 2.0 with better management and the bad bits cut out.

The news of relevance for Luton is that it has been identified as one of the 25 priority areas to which funding will be targeted. This means that the Government will provide funding for projects within the town that form part of the Prevent strategy.

There is no doubt that there were problems with Prevent as it had developed so a new approach is needed and there is a lot here to be welcomed.

For example, for a policy that, by some and seemed to be about targeting Muslims, it was very welcome that the Home Secretary made clear that Prevent “should address all forms of terrorism including the extreme right wing”. This opens up the possibility that some of the activities of groups like the English Defence League could come into its remit. Which is a good thing. However, she did make clear that our greatest threat remains that provided by Al Qa’ida and allied groups and that this is were the focus of its work will have to continue to be.

The objectives of the Prevent strategy, which strike me as being about right, will be measures to:

  • Deal with the ideological challenge
  • Intervene to stop individuals being radicalised and involved in terrorism
  • Work with institutions and organisations to prevent radicalisation from within

However, the Home Secretary felt it necessary to name check both the speeches on this issue that were made by David Cameron in Munich and Nick Clegg here in Luton. Yet these two speeches held out deeply contrasting visions and this is where things get tricky.

She criticised the previous Labour government for confusing policies on community integration and policies on tackling terrorism. Both were needed to deal with the issues of radicalisation and extremism, both non-violent and violent extremism, but they needed to be run in parallel and not be confused. Prevent would solely be about tackling terrorism and violent extremism. What the government would do would be to bring in a new additional emphasis on policies towards integration.

I agree with the need not to confuse the measures to tackle terrorism and violent extremism with the wider agenda of community cohesion. This was something that I criticised Cameron for doing in his speech and praised Clegg for getting right in his! So it is good that the government is being clearer about the difference. However, by talking about integration in the way she did the Home Secretary was framing the debate within the terms of the Tory political rhetoric of “multiculturalism has failed”. We are back to that dreadful phrase “muscular liberalism” again and trying to work out what it means.

I have written before about how the debate over multiculturalism has in recent years become something of a dialogue of the deaf because critics and defenders of multiculturalism are mostly talking about starkly different ideas. The Home Secretary seems to be trying to navigate between the Tory rhetoric and workable policies that exist within the mainstream of current thinking about community cohesion. In an editorial today the Guardian describes this as a fudge. It says;

“For the last election, the Conservatives built a detailed counter-terror agenda around the idea – made explicit for the first time by David Cameron in his Munich speech in February – that multiculturalism had failed. Instead of mutual respect for difference, integration should be at the forefront of the strategy…….After the election Lib Dem negotiators, reassured by a common resistance to Labour’s control orders and detention without trial, signed up to most of the Tory programme. But then came Mr Cameron’s Munich speech and the differences were launched into the public space. Nick Clegg went to Luton to argue for engagement rather than exclusion. The result of the trimming that followed is a convenient fudge over the precise definition of extremism that will leave some flexibility of implementation for Lib Dem ministers….”

I think I am more optimistic that on the ground those actually working in this field will be more able to work positively within this “fudged” framework. But the talk of fudge and negotiation does highlight in this area the difference the Liberal Democrats are making in government. What would the policy look like if the Conservatives were governing alone? What kind of mess would we be in then? What more do Lib Dems need to do to make sure that we can get this to work?

You can see the Home Secretary’s announcement below: