Month: May 2007

Is accountability the “idea” that the Lib Dems need?

An interesting article by Steve Richards in The Independent yesterday throws a spotlight on a political “theme” that he believes should be much more debated by politicians than it is. That theme is “accountability” and although I do not necessarily agree with some of his conclusions, the points he makes are quite interesting, particularly in the context of the Lib Dems currently looking for a more coherent narrative.

Steve Richards’ point is that reform of government and of the delivery of policies is only successful where the lines of accountability are clear. He points to the independence of the Bank of England as a successful model, whereas the operation of the railways is clearly not. But to me it is more than just a part of grand reforms, it is also a part of the whole debate on how people increasingly feel marginalised by the decision-makers and do not feel as though their views counts regardless of who is in power.

The example that Steve Richards uses of the railways is a good example. There is now a huge number of bodies involved in the running of the trains, with no one person or body having overall responsibility, or any obvious accountability within the different bodies. This is despite the government taking the positive step of moving more of the powers to the democratically accountable Department of Transport than with bodies such as the Strategic Rail Authority. What we still retain though is a huge number of companies and bodies that have mixed up duties and with different responsibilities, and with no one who can make a decision on the overall strategy for the trains who can actually deliver that strategy with any confidence. One of the best examples of this mess from the time I worked in the rail industry is the function of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) which is both a trade union for the private operators (and so is the public face of train companies, often at times when they are criticsed for fare rises or a rail accident) but is also a statutory body that has legal responsibilities for some industry-wide schemes such as railcards but due to its other role it ends up making purely commercial decisions not necessarily those that benefit the customer. Yet this mess exists in an area of government that is hugely controversial and where there is a widely held view that there is a large degree of failure to create a transport network that meets the public’s needs. Steve Richards also highlights the NHS as an area where this is becoming increasingly the case, it is almost as if the more controversial and the more important the political area, the more difficult the accountability is to understand.

One often cited solution to the current problems with either public or private sector provision of services, is instead to use the voluntary sector, but Steve Richards also points out how the current trend to involve the voluntary sector more goes completely against the need for greater accountability. He is very true on this point, and it is something that has concerned me, but saying that you oppose charities taking on extra roles is not a popular thing to say, as they are invariably seen as a good thing whereas politicians are not.

Where I do disagree with part of his analysis is that the trend for localism actually goes against accountability. How can putting power in the hands of local communities and those who walk the same streets as those they are accountable to, produce less accountability? He is of course right that the turnout in local elections is poor, but surely if a council had more responsibilities and (and this is the key) had the resources both financially and physically to get on and make changes that they want to see, that would in fact increase accountability.

A recent article in Prospect magazine by Jonathan Myerson, a former Labour councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth, also raised a similar issue. His analysis however centered on his inability as a councillor to make any changes in his ward. His argument was that people in his area did not want to be consulted on everything, they did not want to be involved in decision-making, but instead they just wanted him to have the resources to make the changes they had elected him to do. Whilst, this is quite a high handed attitude, and his call for making councillors full-time on higher salaries with an office and staff, may not necessarily be a popular move with voters, there is a point here. Politicians are the people who have been elected with a remit to work for the local community, but if even they don’t think they have the power to change things, then something is clearly wrong with the accountability of the decision-makers.

Accountability is not a new topic of interest to Liberal Democrats. The party has often railed again unaccountable bureaucracies, whether this is regeneration boards set up by local councils or the European Commission. But what we have perhaps not considered is how this should integrate in to a party narrative that promotes accountability whilst not promoting bigger government. A fine line to tread on which Lib Dems are not always consistent and often struggle with when creating new policy.

Perhaps the key to accountability in the short-term is that we should push for accountability that is straightforward and simple, rather than varied and complex. Accountability only truly exists if the majority of the population can understand the chains of command simply, and they can easily find out who is in charge of something and it is clear who actually makes the decision on something. This may not be a grand idea, it may also be dull (as Steve Richards acknowledges) but it is perhaps something that is at the heart of being a liberal and a democrat, and the Lib Dems should look at embracing it as a part of its narrative. It also acknowledges a concern that is important regardless of whether a service provider is in the private or public sectors, and so will be of interest to both the left and right in the party.

THE INDEPENDENT: A dull concept that ministers try to avoid. But public services won’t work without it.

Norfolk Park & Cholera Monument Grounds

Sheffield Cholera Monument GroundsOne of the many advantages of living in the city centre is that I now have new places on my doorstep that before would take a bit more planning and a longer journey.

Two of those places I went to on Monday, when I went for a walk from my flat up through Norfolk Park and across to the Cholera Monument Gardens. Norfolk Park is one of Sheffield’s bigger parks and is also one of the oldest in the country. It is just minutes from the edge of the city centre but as soon as you start walking through it, it could be in the middle of the countryside. But the best bit is what you meet at the top of the hill – the view across the city. I’ve written before on this website about how the hills are one of the best things about the city. That is certainly true in the case of Norfolk Park, which has amazing views across the city centre, across the city as a whole and then out in to the countryside.

I then walked through the neighbouring residential streets past the impressive Shrewsbury Hospital Estate, and then to the Cholera Monument Grounds. I felt as though I knew this park as you can see the Cholera Monument from some distance across the valley, but I realised that I didn’t. It is a beautiful park that is made up of carefully trimmed lawns and a tree-lined avenue leading from the road. It is quiet and secluded and yet right at the heart of the city. By the monument itself you then have yet another dramatic view across the city. It is great that the high-rises of Claywood Flats also no longer block out part of the view as they once did.

Sheffield may not be known as a beautiful city, but if an outsider came to both of these places they would rapidly change their mind.

SHEFFIELD CITY COUNCIL: Norfolk Park

SHEFFIELD CITY COUNCIL: Cholera Monument Grounds

FLIKR: Anders Hanson’s Sheffield Collection

Bin the proposed rubbish charge

On the surface, charging households for the amount of rubbish they throw away sounds attractive as a way of encouraging people to recycle. But it makes me feel very uneasy for a number of reasons:

  • How will it be measured? Will each bin have to be weighed before it is emptied in to the dustbin lorry? If so, that must be an expensive bit of kit that will be needed to ensure that the rubbish is weighed properly (where is the audit trail if someone questions they amount they are charged?) and then allocated to the correct property. This will also generate a massive bureaucracy to ensure that people are billed correctly.
  • How can you be sure that the rubbish you are emptying belongs to that household? It is not unusual for people to put rubbish in other people’s bin if theirs is full, and this may well be done deliberately by people trying to avoid the charge. In my area, most bins look the same as each other – big, black, plastic and with wheels on the bottom. At the moment, it does not matter if the bins get mixed up as everyone’s is the same. That could become another source of neighbourly tension if each bin has to go back to a certain property.
  • What do you do with communal bins? Where I live now, we have three large commercial metal bins between everyone in the development.
  • Will this set a precedent of charging people for their services based on whether we view their personal habits as positive or not? For example, could we now decide to tax people who drive fast as there is more of a risk of an accident?
  • Will this also begin the separation of services out with us being charged separately for everything we do, generating one massive new bureaucracy for us to pay for?
  • Finally, and to me a huge concern, is that it may just generate more fly-tipping, which is even harder to control. This week Sheffield was revealed as having the third biggest problem with fly-tipping in the country, I can only assume it would get worse under this system.

Unlike fortnightly bin collections, which I think are less problematic than the perception as I had them myself for two years without any problems, this latest proposal sounds like the potential for a horrendous mess. There are plenty of other ways of cutting down on the amount of waste that is simply binned, that are much simpler and could potentially have the same benefit.

BBC NEWS: Bin charges to ‘boost recycling’

THE STAR: £10 million cost of fly-tippers

Moving house

Butcher Works, SheffieldI always hate moving house, but today went remarkably smoothly. But then I’ve started to get used to it. In my first 22 years I moved house once, (unless you count going to and from university), but in the last nine, I’ve moved house six times.

It’s going to be odd living in Sheffield city centre after years of living in the suburbs, but I’m really looking forward to it. What’s also great is the actual building I’ve moved in to, which is a Grade 2* listed former cutlery factory. Sheffield is filling up with more and more apartment blocks, but at least this one is a bit more unusual and is a very distinctive building. So much so, that before it was converted it was used for filming some TV programmes like Micawber and Silent Witness.

The biggest relief though is moving out from my parents’ house. As much as I get on with them, I think we’ve both found it difficult living together again after I’ve lived away from them for seven years. I now have to get used to being someone’s lodger, as I am sharing the flat with a friend that I’ve known since school days.

FLIKR: Butcher Works, Sheffield