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Today sees the publication of a report from the think-tank Demos which argues that supermarkets should be seen as an intergral part of creating the so-called ‘Big Society’. The report’s author said:

“[The supermarkets] have a role to play in helping deprived communities to regenerate by reducing stigma, boosting community morale and bringing low-cost quality produce into the area. It’s easy to be cynical about mainstream retail chains, but they can be the game-changer for transforming perceptions within and outside rundown neighbourhoods.”

The only problem being that, in the USA at least, supermarkets have been linked with a decline in civic life and the closure of those very institutions that the Big Society claims to promote.

When two economists, Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha, carried out a detailed study [1] in the US of the links between Wal-Mart and “social capital” – the community cohesion and mutual support that makes neighbourhoods work – they were astonished to find that the presence of a Wal-Mart nearby brought the voting turn-out down.

Other measures of social capital went down too. They found that communities that gained a Wal-Mart during the decade had fewer local charities and local associations such as churches, campaign and business groups per capita than those that did not. But why?

It seems that by crushing smaller businesses and losing the local knowledge and relationships they embody, the supermarket economic model – used by its UK subsidiary Asda, and widely copied by rivals such as Tesco – cuts the threads that hold an engaged community together. Big supermarkets, often lured by grants into regeneration areas, have not acted as useful anchors but instead have competed, often unfairly, with the surrounding businesses – sucking money out of the local economy.

Governments have mistaken being “big business-friendly” with being pro-enterprise. And supermarkets have not only killed the rich diversity of producers, suppliers and shops that are essential to a resilient economy, they are also dissolving the glue that holds communities together.

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[1] Stephan J. Goetz and Anil Rupasingha (2006) ‘Wal-mart and social capital’, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol 88, No 5.

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Bookmark and ShareJulia Slay co-ordinates nef‘s work on co-production.

Last week I received a call from a director of services from a large London council. Let’s call him Mr Borough. He had just read our latest report, Public Services Inside Out, which makes the case for people and professionals designing and delivering public services together in equal partnership: what we call ‘co-production’. This innovative approach, we argue, results in much better outcomes, often shifts towards a more preventative model of public services and can lower costs. Mr Borough had also been told that he would need to make a 30 per cent cut to his budget within the next three to five years. But instead of heading straight for the nearest pub to drown his sorrows, he was actually excited by what lay ahead. Mr Borough felt that the current ‘squeeze’ on public services represents the biggest opportunity he had ever faced to radically revisit the shape and style of the support he is able to offer people.

Co-production offers such an alternative, as a wider transformation of our public services by bringing new resources – people’s time, skills and experience – into the system.

Mention “co-production” to someone and the chances are most people won’t know what you’re talking about. But although the vocabulary of co-production isn’t well known, the practice of it is increasingly happening all around us. Almost any service can be co-produced: while the actual process and activities can vary, it almost always looks and feels the same as the principles which underpin the approach are manifested in everyday practices, as well as in strategic level governance.

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Bookmark and SharePerry Walker is head of the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Launching the Conservative election manifesto, David Cameron said, “We should remember the basic rule: that when you give people responsibility, they behave responsibly.”

The logic of this is that if you take responsibility away, you deter people from behaving responsibly. Seems obvious. Surely organizations understand this? Especially when ‘empowerment’ is a term in such vogue.  Sadly, they don’t. My personal Villain of the Month Award goes to Somerset County Council. It’s a provisional award, because I have only read one side of the story, but the story, in the Spring 2010 edition of the Ramblers’ ‘Walk’ magazine, seems pretty clear cut:

Mendip Ramblers’ long-established team of footpath workers has had to cease its weekly repairs after Somerset County Council decided instead to roll out its own volunteer scheme. ‘We’re angry and frustrated,’ says organizer Bob Berry, “All we wanted to do is continue to help keep local rights of way open and usable.

That rang a bell that took me back to Bea Campbell’s marvelous book of 1993, Goliath. She tells a story set in Meadowell in Newcastle, where a corporation depot was being used as a dump. A resident called Nancy asked: ‘The kids have nowhere to play. Why can’t we have a park?’ Children, adults and an advice centre then got together to create one. The children’s top priority was a ‘parkie’ – a keeper to keep it safe. No money, said the council. So, every day, on a rota, residents opened up in the morning and locked up at night. Every Sunday they had a clean up.

However, after a year they discovered that the council was about to employ a play worker. With no consultation, they felt hurt and snubbed. The Sunday clean-up stopped, and the treasured play site deteriorated.

Aren’t those two stories similar, despite being separated by ten years and the length of the country? They are similar both in what the councils did and in the effect that had on local people.

I conclude that it is very hard to empower people. They choose whether to empower themselves. But it is pretty easy to disempower them. So beware.

Bookmark and ShareJulia Slay co-ordinates nef‘s work on co-production.

There’s something in the air at the moment. A combination of spring air, Icelandic ash, and the almost tangible pulsations of change vibrating up and down the country. The election comes. And with it is a sense that we can review and take stock of how we, as a country work. We look to new solutions, to innovative models and ideas which might point the new to a new direction – particularly, in our case, for how we might run our public services.

Last week, among this buzz of election fever,  fifteen front line public sector workers and around a hundred guests came together to talk about one such innovation – an approach where public services are designed and delivered in equal partnership between people and professionals – also known as co-producing public services. We were launching our latest publication, Public Services Inside Out, and show people how co-production works on the ground.

Those who came were struck by how radically different the outcomes of co-production can be. Max, an eighteen year old participant in the national programme Learning to Lead, presented confidently and fluently to a large group about how their model of self elected student councils makes students the ‘crew, and not the passengers’ of their education.  User Voice, whose strapline is ‘only the offender can stop re-offending’ made a persuasive and passionate argument for the importance of working with offenders to identify long term solutions and preventative measures that will break the current criminal justice deadlock. Mark, a member of KeyRing who was been supported to live independently, spoke about how his disabilities had previously marked him out as someone who ‘needed’ things, and that these needs had defined time and time again what he couldn’t do. Since joining KeyRing, the focus has shifted onto what he can do, and where his skills and abilities can be supported and developed to help him live within a mutual support network where he is integrated into the community.

All of the front line staff and people there illuminated the key to co-production. If we peg people up as ‘users’ of a public service which is delivered, they will be relegated to a passive role which adds little social value, and provides no opportunity for equal participation in our services. But if we understand that people have skills, capabilities, knowledge and experience to contribute then we can see the huge potential for unleashing these hidden assets and co-producing better outcomes across our services.

Bookmark and Sharelindsay-mackie2Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.

When nef began to put together the Post Bank Coalition 15 months ago it was because we knew that this vital local economic and community network was being neglected and run down to the point where it might crumble to a few thousand post offices.

Successive governments have treated the Post Office as a series of problems which they hoped would go away- rather than as a trusted and flexible organisation which props up- and more- thousands of communities both rural and urban.

Today’s announcement then , that the Post Office is to get a dollop of  £180 million Government (our) money  to provide new financial services and to improve financial inclusion through credit unions and weekly budget plans is thoroughly welcome. The big banks have been made to offer up their current accounts for access in Post Offices and the poor will now be able to pay utility bills by direct debit instead of through the disgracefully over priced meters. The Government is talking about how it can levy retail banks to pay for credit unions to access accounts wherever they are in the country.

This announcement does show that the Government has entirely changed direction by recognising, and saying strongly, that the Post Office network is important, is highly valued by the people, and needs to be sustained .

The Post Bank Coalition – nef, the Communication Workers Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Pensioners Convention, Unite the Union, the Public Interest research Centre – would go much further though, than the Government has today. Our proposal is that a Post Bank- of the sort which flourishes in Italy, France, New Zealand and elsewhere (South Africa is about to start one)- is the answer both to the business future of the Post Office and to our need for diversity in the banking system.

Our economy depends on local economies. At present they are badly served by the retail banks and could be must best served by their local post offices. At present the financial services offered by the Post Office- which it does do very successfully, being, for instance, the number one provider of foreign currency in the UK- are run by the Bank of Ireland so that 50 percent of all profits go back to Ireland. But worse than that, the Bank of Ireland is in a very shaky position and its capacity so far has not even included offering a current account to PO customers, nor children’s savings accounts. We on the Coalition think its probably not capable even of offering the new range of products adequately. It may have been the right partner at the time when the PO went into financial products but it isn’t now.

So we would have liked the Government to grasp that nettle. The other problem about the welcome first steps announced today is that they don’t do anything substantial for the big Post Office problem of the falling revenues of a third of all post offices. Only a publicly owned Post Bank, with all the revenues going back into the Post Office, with all the innovation and increased footfall it would bring, can do that.

But the Post Bank Coalition is pleased with a good first step to keeping and protecting this astounding and far reaching underpinning  of the public realm.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Officer and blogmaster.

Ed Miliband in the Guardian on Saturday:

“Institutions are the things that define governments. The 1945 government was defined by its relationship with the NHS. The 1997 government was defined by … institutions like Sure Start. I think the idea of the People’s Bank, the network of post offices around the country connected by a new financial institution, is one of those ideas. It speaks to people’s sense of community – and frankly, banks have let down low-income consumers, and others as well. It is part of a new deal for the low paid around the banking industry. […] It is part of a bigger reform I think we need in the relationship between individuals and financial institutions. We have a set of institutions in our post offices that can form the basis of this banking system, but up to now we have not put into practice this idea that it can be a very serious financial institution and, if you like, a competitor to the conventional private sector. At present there are limits to what the Post Office can offer in terms of current accounts – we will expand those services and link them up with credit unions.”

This is really fantastic news, not just for those of us who have led the campaign for a Post Bank here at nef and beyond, but for people living on the front line of financial exclusion. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour now support the Post Bank, and there have been some positive murmurings in the sidelines of the Conservative Party.

You can help build momentum for the creation of a Post Bank, particularly if you live in a Conservative constituency, by asking your MP to sign Early Day Motion 344.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Three years ago, Local Works, a coalition of very diverse organisations including nef, the Campaign for Real Ale, the National Farmer’s Union Wales, the Federation of Small Businesses, Greenpeace, and Age Concern, mobilised thousands of ordinary people to lobby their MPs for a new law that would give local councils and community groups more power to demand thriving, sustainable local economies. The result was the Sustainable Communities Act, which was passed with full cross party support on 23 October 2007.

The Act was a victory for everyone resisting the unsustainable and destructive expansion of bland, corporate, clone town Britain. It gave towns, villages and hamlets the power to demand Government action to protect local wildlife and green spaces, promote local shops and jobs, boost local public services, tackle fuel poverty and develop new ways of broadening democratic participation in local areas. Over 100 local councils are using the Act, and more will adopt it in the future. But we now need your help to secure its position in UK law.

Right now, the Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill is passing through the House of Commons. The Amendment will ensure that the Act will be an ongoing process, reviewed and discussed year on year. Last week the Amendment Bill successfully cleared its Committee Stage. It has the support of all parties and the Government. But in order for the Bill to become law before the General Election, it needs more time in Parliament.

Please email ministers John Denham and Harriet Harman TODAY and ask for that the Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill receives more time in Parliament. By doing so, you’ll help communities and councils fighting for thriving local areas.

Email Harriet Harman: harmanh@parliament.uk

Email John Denham: denhamj@parliament.uk

Sugggested email:

Dear Harriet Harman / John Denham,

The Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill is vital as it will ensure that the democratic involvement seen in the Sustainable Communities Act continues. I ask that you please do all you can to ensure the Bill receives the Parliamentary time it needs in order to become law before the General Election.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

[your name and your address]


Bookmark and ShareJody Aked is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Before a room of 150 planners, architects, engineers, and developers who gathered on Wednesday night at the Building Centre in central London, nef set out the key ideas in its latest report Good Foundations: towards a low carbon, high well-being built environment.

The places and spaces we create form the back-drop of our everyday lives, providing a visual marker of the values that we live by. So why is it that we have ended up with a development model for the built environment so disconnected from those things in life that really matter? Sunand Prasad, immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, reflected that ‘the metrics of success have been too narrow’, while journalist Anna Minton explained that ‘we have lost a notion of the public good, both conceptually and literally’. Both accounts indicate that the priorities of decision makers are somehow out of touch with the things that make the biggest difference to our lives, now and in the future. In particular, the preoccupation with short-term financial returns has meant that we have increasingly treated our houses and public spaces as commodities to be traded, rather than things of inherent value that contribute to our individual and collective well-being.

As efforts to patch up the current financial system continue, and investment into development projects begins to regain momentum, Good Foundations calls for a development model that is fit for purpose. As Stewart Wallis, Executive Director of nef, emphasised, the stakes are high. Today’s challenges – climate change, spatial inequality, low levels of trust and belonging, weak local economies and poor housing quality, require a pro-active response in re-thinking an alternative vision of successful development, which balances social, economic and environmental value with financial return.

But how do we incorporate a broader definition of value that properly takes into account the drivers of people’s well-being into the way we plan, design and develop our neighbourhoods? Good Foundations, sets out a proposition – that when, in 20 years time, we examine the results of our efforts today, our markers of success should be neighbourhoods that promote two key outcomes. These are:

  • place Happiness, the personal, social and economic well-being of their inhabitants, and
  • place Sustainability, which arises from minimising the environmental impact throughout both the construction process and lifetime of a building or place.

The aim of Good Foundations, the final report of a project funded by the Happold Trust, was always to stimulate the beginnings of a cultural shift in the built environment sector. During last night’s discussions, comments from the audience were reassuringly ambitious. In thinking about the report’s final recommendation to test and develop the mechanisms we propose in practice, it was suggested that a sustainable well-being approach should be applied to large infrastructural projects including the development of zero carbon neighbourhoods and large-scale retrofit projects.

Recognition in the sector of the interdependence of well-being and sustainability is critical, not least because the built environment influences all of us when it comes to the choices and decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. As last night proved, the enthusiasm for a genuinely new way of doing things is there. The burning question that remains is: where will the UK’s first low carbon, high well-being neighbourhood be?

Bookmark and ShareAnna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef.

Imagine a new ‘standard’ working week of 21 hours.  Not 35 hours, or a four-day week, but 21 hours or its equivalent spread across the calendar year.

How would it feel to wake up on a chilly February morning? More time in bed, more time with the kids, more time to read, see your mum, hang out with friends, repair the guttering, make music, fix lunch, walk in the park.  Whatever you need or want to do.

Economist John Maynard Keynes hoped that by 2000, we'd be working 15 hour weeks.

Outlandish? Well, it’s less radical than the vision of John Maynard Keynes. He imagined a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century, because he thought we’d no longer have to work long hours to satisfy our material needs.

His forecast was wrong, not least because our definition of material needs has grossly expanded. In fact, the ‘normal’ working week lengthened in the last decades of the 20th century, with two-adult households adding six hours a week to their combined paid workload.  Many of us work longer and harder to earn enough to buy what we need (or think we need), to keep or improve our place in the world, or simply to make ends meet.  Meanwhile, others have too little employment, or none at all.

But Keynes was right to envisage a need to think differently about how we use and value time.  In the 21st century, moving towards much shorter hours of paid employment could be a critical factor in heading off environmental, social and economic catastrophe.  In the developed world, most of us are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us.

Economic growth has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption.  So workers have borrowed to consume what they cannot afford and now the credit bubble has burst.  Politicians are urging us all to shop harder to help the economy recover and grow. Yet natural resources are critically depleted by high-rolling consumerism and the climate clock is ticking. While some of us accumulate more and more material goods, others have less and less of life’s essentials.

We have even managed in our increasingly unequal society to divvy up time as an unequal commodity. Under-employment as well as unemployment is prevalent in low-income groups. Nearly 2.5 million are currently unemployed. Nearly one million worked part-time in the third quarter of 2009, because they could not find a full-time job, a rise of 30,000 over the previous quarter and up 30 per cent since the 2008.

A more equal distribution of working time would have clear environmental benefits. Leading economists are turning their attention to how we can manage with little or no economic growth, on the ground that continuing growth in the developed world cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently or in time to avoid disastrous climate change. Tim Jackson, Peter Victor and others have identified shorter working hours as one way to reduce labour and output overall without intensifying hardship or widening inequalities: share out the total of paid work more evenly across the population.

A 21-hour working week is a long way from today’s standard of 40 hours or more, but not so far-fetched when you consider the infinitely varied ways in which we actually spend our time.  On average, people of working age spend 19.6 hours a week in paid employment and 20.4 hours in unpaid housework and childcare.  Of course these averages mask huge inequalities, both between women and men and between income groups – not only in how they use their time, but also in how far they can control it.  Bringing the standard nearer to the average could help to iron out these differences.

Moving towards a standard of 21 hours could help to redistribute unpaid as well as paid time – for example by making more jobs available for the unemployed and giving men more time to look after their children.

There’s nothing natural or inevitable about our nine-to-five, five-day week. It’s just a relic of the industrial revolution. It can be changed. When the state of Utah in the US introduced a four-day week for state employees (without reduced hours, but giving everyone a three-day weekend), more than half said they were more productive and three-quarters said they preferred the new arrangements. The State saved $4.1 million through reduced absenteeism and overtime and $1.4 million through reduced travel in state-owned vehicles; it reduced carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons, other greenhouse gases by 8,000 tons and petrol consumption by 744,000 gallons. 82 per cent of employees said they wanted the one-year experiment to continue.

We could get off the consumer treadmill and leave a smaller footprint on the earth.  We could spend less on energy-intensive ‘convenience’ items designed to save us time – from processed foods and household gadgets to cars and airline tickets. We’d have more time to care for friends and family, and to look after our own health.  We could leave employment and claim our pensions later, with a much gentler transition to retirement. We’d have more time to keep learning and take part in local activities. We might begin to reassess how we value different kinds of work, regardless of whether or how it is paid.  We might give a higher rating to relationships, pastimes and places that absorb less of our money and more of our time.

There could be benefits for business too, with more women in paid employment, more men leading rounded, balanced lives, less workplace stress and greater productivity hour for hour.  The driving force towards a prosperous economy would no longer be credit-fuelled consumerism, which has proved so destructive, but financial stability and good work distributed fairly across the population.

None of this will be easy to achieve. A lot of people will have to adjust to earning a lot less, but this has to be seen as part of a bigger transition, over a decade or more, that will involve a radical shift in values and expectations.  . Everything depends on having the right measures in place to ensure that work is fairly distributed, that everyone has enough to live on, that employers are encouraged to take on more staff, and that public attitudes change to support less materialist lifestyles and a revaluation of paid and unpaid time.  These are explored in more detail in our report, 21 Hours.

Social norms that seem to be firmly fixed can sometimes change quite suddenly.  Take, for example, attitudes towards slavery and votes for women, wearing seatbelts and crash helmets, not smoking in bars and restaurants.  The weight of public opinion can swing from antipathy to routine acceptance, usually when there’s a combination of new evidence, changing conditions, a sense of crisis and a strong campaign.  This proposal for a 21-hour working week is intended as a provocation, to stimulate debate and ideas.  It also reflects an urgent need to build a sustainable future.  We already have strong supporting evidence, changing conditions that demand a fresh approach and a profound sense of crisis.  The campaign starts here.

21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century by Anna Coote, Andrew Simms and Jane Franklin was published on Saturday 13 February 2010.

Bookmark and Share David Boyle is a nef fellow, a writer and the editor of nef‘s newspaper, Radical Economics.

Are Tesco's claims about jobs correct?

Tesco’s spokesman Lucy Neville-Rolfe claims that the government’s new competition test will cost 25,000 jobs over the next decade.  This is highly misleading, and not just because Tesco are now firmly in the anti-competition camp.  Actually, as most people have known since Adam Smith, more competition usually means more jobs.

What this nonsense seeks to avoid is the truth which has devastated so many local economies over the past decade – some retail developers build the local economy; some corrode them.

It is highly misleading to suggest that all Tesco developers create jobs, when research suggests that most big supermarket developments are net destroyers of jobs.  It’s as if Lucy Neville-Rolfe and her kind are able to add, but are blind when it comes to subtracting.  The jobs in a new Tesco have to be offset against those which disappear as a result.

Local authorities need to do much more to distinguish between new stores which will be genuine anchors – which will bring in more customers to the local high street, and increase the money that stays circulating in the local economy – and those which won’t.

Sadly, many Tesco stores are not actually providing anchors to the surrounding shops.  They are intending to compete with them and, since the big four supermarkets are semi-monopolies – which have huge power over suppliers – they will tend to drive out any local competition.  Companies which, like Tesco, intend to compete in nearly every local market will rarely be effective anchors.

If you wonder why so many of our local economies have been hollowed out, here is the main reason: we have been using wealth destroyers as anchor stores.

So next time someone like Lucy Neville-Rolfe talks about the jobs that are not being created because someone has had the temerity to put some mild block in their path, ask them to do some proper arithmetic.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.
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