In this post Andy Milne, Chief Executive of SURF (Scotland’s regeneration network), reminds us of some important issues that need to be brought more centrally into the debate about Scotland’s future.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The possibilities are unprecedented, the reality is dire. One year in advance of the big vote, SURF will host a ‘Regeneration and the Referendum’ debate. As Scotland’s independent regeneration network, SURF is neutral on the constitutional question but I’d like to offer three debatable points towards the more frank and open discussion that we need to have over the next year, in the run up to that historic decision.
1 Failed leadership
Progressive tax and planning systems are good things but, in an extended crisis of confidence in social and economic solidarity, no leader of a major political party has advocated more of either in recent decades. Just as tax is what we pay for civilisation, planning is about agreeing how we can live successfully together, now and in the future. The alternative is the sorting of scarce resources by varied forms of extortion and violence, as exemplified by the 1980s Mad Max movies and in some aspects of recent foreign policy. It was a failure of leadership in regulation and ethics that precipitated economic collapse – not excessive public spending.
2 Beware political consensus
The resulting recession and attendant ‘austerity’ measures, which all of the main party leaders in the UK context now adhere to, is a political project presented as an economic crisis. I am reminded of the Adam Smith quote: “People of the same trade seldom meet together… but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” More recently, the leading US politician Rahm Emanuel let the cat out of the bag when he said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” (For the fullest exposition of the implementation of this philosophy, read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – the rise of disaster capitalism.)
3 It’s the poverty and inequality, stupid
The UK is the 7th richest nation on the planet – and the 4th most unequal. The allocation of resources is a political process, not an act of God. Poverty and inequality are the main drivers of degeneration. Professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s much referenced book The Spirit Level provides copious detail on how increasing levels of inequality makes life and living together more difficult and dangerous for all of us.1
And yet, the political group think of the reality free elite at the UK level means that the austerity project is set to continue. National and local government are scaling up and selling off vital public services to voracious private conglomerates which do everything they can do not pay tax (see point 1 above). Their profit priority business models relentlessly drive down the UK’s already poor levels of wages and conditions. In doing so, they degenerate the economic and social capacity of people and places.
A practical proposal
In this continuing recessionary context, the Scottish Government is advocating more ‘community led’ and ‘asset based’ regeneration. This is presented as a means of releasing additional resources to help meet rising needs. Certainly, there are substantial information, asset and enterprise resources within communities. These are the same ones that were wilfully undervalued and ignored in the decades of unregulated greed that precipitated the banking crisis and the subsequent recession.
SURF’s recent ‘Reality, Resources, Resilience’ study of how already disadvantaged communities are being affected by the recession, and how they and their regeneration partners are responding, highlighted some creative collaborations built on identifying, celebrating and developing authentic identity, skills and interests.3 At the local level, creative processes are enabling broad-based participation and imaginative exploration of alternatives to the trickle-down model of regeneration that failed the most disadvantaged communities, even in the years of apparent abundance for everyone else.
This is encouraging– but a question of scale and timing remains. Under its present powers, the Scottish Government could make a bigger difference in a shorter timescale. Instead of its apparent default procurement policy position of massively ‘scaling up’ for short term cost efficiencies, it could more intelligently deploy its £9bn annual procurement budget and its £17bn five year Infrastructure Investment Plan in support of local jobs, businesses and communities. That would represent a positive and practical approach to addressing the poverty and inequality that undermines all of our collective efforts in this rich country – whatever the outcome of the referendum.
Notes and References
1 Prof Pickett summarised the main arguments in the ‘Spirit Level’ at her 2009 SURF Annual Lecture in Edinburgh. A transcript publication can be downloaded from the SURF website: http://www.scotregen.co.uk/knowledge-centre/event-reports/
2 Video presentations and other materials from SURF’s 2013 infrastructure conference with Nicola Sturgeon MSP & Prof Greg Lloyd are available at: http://www.scotregen.co.uk/truths-and-myths-infrastructure-and-social-benefits/
3 The final report of SURF’s ‘Reality, Resources, Resilience’ investigative programme was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in January 2013: http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/reality-resources-resilience