Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Political Leadership and City Regeneration Part 1

Over the last couple of weeks I've been on a short adventure in city regeneration policy. A fortnight ago I was down at Portcullis House in the Big Smoke for a morning discussion on 'Rebuilding Britain's Cities: Lessons from the UK and US'. And the Friday before saw a day conference at Keele on the 'Socio-Political Challenges of Medium-Sized Cities' concentrating on neighbourhoods, health, and political leadership. The changes to health policy and the persistence of areas associated with deprivation, unemployment, crime, high morbidity were discussed in some rigorous detail, but I would like to concentrate on that day's final paper by former MEP and council leader, Mike Tappin. His topic not only serves as a bridge to the Portcullis House discussion but is one of crucial importance for all cities negotiating the treacherous rapids of regeneration: the problem of political leadership.

Mike's paper, 'The Governance Challenge for Stoke-on-Trent: A Study of System, Economic and Political Failure' didn't pull any punches. It really was a frank look at the multiple contributors to Stoke's decline. First, Mike flagged up the spatial dimension. Rather than following the "traditional" centre/periphery model of cities, Stoke is a polycentric city. It is as if drawn out along a South East to North West axis. It comprises the six towns that federated to form Stone-on-Trent in 1910, but in practice (according to previous work undertaken by Mike) the city is sub-divided into 56 more or less discrete "villages", which lends The Potteries a very strong cultural and political localism. This is reinforced by the bypassing of Stoke-on-Trent by the M6, poor internal road networks (for example, Potteries Way - the inner city ring road - has been only half built for over 20 years), and a not altogether praise-worthy public transport system. When 34% of city households are without a car this is a big problem.

Like many medium-sized industrial cities Stoke has suffered economic decline. In the 1950s 70,000, 10,000+, and 20,000+ workers were employed in ceramics, steel, and mining respectively. By 2001 those figures stood at 6,000, 200, and zero. In the 1971-81 period (before Thatcherism began to bite), that decade saw the loss of 28,000 manufacturing jobs and the closure of two local collieries. Additionally, because of the dependence on the potteries, Stoke possessed something of a counter-cyclical economy. When Britain entered into recession the devaluation of sterling boosted Stoke's exports abroad, allowing it to buck the trend. Since 1981, for all intents and purposes the potteries are the only significant economic survivor of the early period. Manufacturing - including ceramics - accounts for below 20% of local employment. Distribution and retail have taken up the slack of private employment.

The unemployment figures more explicitly tell the story of Stoke's decline. In the 50s and 60s unemployment averaged at around 3% - roughly 2,500 people. Through the 70s to most of the 1990s it hovered around the UK average, but in this last decade it has become a major problem. In February 2009, at the start of the recession, 24.1% of the workforce were unemployed, and 43% of that jobless total had been out of work for five years or more. Taking together JSA, incapacity benefit, and income support, 55,550 people were dependent on benefits in some way in North Staffordshire. For Mike, this has bred a 'culture of contentment' whereby aspirations are atuned to the income one receives from benefits, therefore helping to culturally lock Stoke into a perpetual cycle of economic water treading. This can be seen in educational attainment. Whereas the West Midlands average for NVQ levels 2, 3 and 4 are 61.6, 42.3 and 24.5 for the working age population, the respective figures for Stoke is 53.8, 32.3 and 14.4.

Mike argues the city's economic problems are exacerbated by its political difficulties. From 1977-96 Stoke was governed by the County Council based in Stafford, reducing the Potteries to the status of a district council. This led to a two-tiered political culture where the brightest and the best "went south" while the "b team" remained at home. In 1996 the city was made a unitary authority (Mike would have preferred a broader N Staffs authority commensurate with the city's economic footprint) and off the back of the national wave against the Tories, Labour romped home that year with 60 councillors to nil. From 2000 on the Labour party began imploding, seeing its vote collapse from 40.75% at the start of the decade to just 25% in 2008. Matters weren't helped by a switch to an elected mayoral system in 2002, only for it to switch back
six years later. Independents and the BNP started making inroads at Labour's expense, but were checked at the 2010 local election. Labour gained 13 councillors off the back of the general election turn out, and has since recruited another councillor who crossed the floor. Labour now governs in a coalition with the Conservatives and Independents Alliance, LibDems, and the City Independent group.

So much for the form of local politics. What of their content? Mike identified five interrelated problems: the poor quality of local councillors; a clear lack of bold strategic thinking in any of the local parties; the culture of localism; the absence of a civically-minded educated middle class; and lastly, the tendency of the system and parties to store up long term political animosities.

On top of political instability, there has been a constant churn in the city's administration. 2001-10 saw the council get through six chief executives, five directors of social services, and three finance officers. This lack of inbuilt expertise has seen the Council pay out (on average) £6m annually to various consultancies. Even worse, up until the government's bonfire of the quangos, city governance was parcelled out among the City Council, the Renew Housing Partnership, the N Staffs Regeneration Partnership, and Local Strategic Partnerships. It's pretty clear who was responsible for the traditional functions of local government, but which body was in charge of the regeneration process?

These problems have been partially addressed by a governance commission that was appointed in 2007. Its brief was:

1) To consider options about future governance arrangements for Stoke-on-Trent Council to deliver that strong, effective and accountable leadership that the city needs to address the economic, social and cohesion challenges which it faces.
2) To give consideration to governance across the wider public/private sector and to the importance of economic regeneration and community cohesion.
3) To consider the relationship between Stoke-on-Trent and the wider sub-regional/regional/national bodies including other Local Authorities and their partners within the region.
It recommended the setting up of a further body - the 'transition board' - to make further suggestions for sorting out the city's governance. It concluded by favouring all-out four-year elections, single member wards, fewer councillors, member development, more devolved decision-making, working to improve the council machinery, and improving community engagement. After much wrangling councillors will be reduced from 60 to 44, and council ward boundaries redrawn with the majority of them becoming single member (owing to behind the scenes fudges, some will move to two member wards, and one will remain three member). For Mike this strikes at the root of many of the petty rivalries that have grown up between councillors representing the same patch, and the move to four-yearly elections allows the necessary space for longer term strategic planning.

But this doesn't go far enough. He would like to see the council concentrate on core functions and, in the longer term, help voluntary organisations and social enterprises take over some of the ancillary services it currently provides. He wants to see a drive to develop the civic capacity of Stoke's communities to produce the ambitious and competent cadre of politicians the city needs. And Mike also called for more cooperation between N Staffs councils, businesses, quangos and other interested bodies to deliver a proper plan for the city and its hinterland.

While I didn't agree with all of Mike's presentation, it did provide plenty of food for thought. 


Regards 'civic capacity' this is where political parties come in. At the moment Stoke Central CLP is in the process of renovating itself. For the first time in years it's been conducting regular political work inbetween elections, which the party is starting to reap benefits from in terms of new recruits and, for want of a better word, "reconnection". Similarly internally the party is rolling out a programme of political education in conjunction with activism to develop all members' strengths. The culture of bureaucracy and deference is slowly being eroded, allowing space for new members to grow and assume responsibilities. But this process is long, slow and painstaking.

A civic culture, according to Will Hutton, is one of the "soft" cultural props a successful and sustainable capitalism depends on (and, I would argue, an essential component for socialism too - but we'll leave that by the by for now). Its absence in Stoke is one of the contributing factors to a generalised lack of internal capital accumulation that could see the city out of its doldrums. Therefore this isn't just a problem that can be boiled down to atomised working class communities and privatised individuals: it's one that afflicts existing business elites too. I don't want to say much more as I'm involved in a couple of projects on the issue of civic culture and political participation, but as we shall see in the next post, there are important lessons that can be drawn from American experiences of declining cities.

Lastly, one cannot disagree with Mike's view of time-scale. Whatever regeneration strategy tickles your political fancy it has to be long-term and consistently pursued. I grew up in and around Derby. Though it has its own set of persistent problems and inbuilt advantages, 20 years of a tenacious pursuit of a coherent regeneration strategy has transformed the city to the point where it has the
highest workplace wage base outside the South East. While Stoke's situation is such that it's unlikely to achieve parity with its more affluent neighbour, it is a useful exemplar of what vision and determination in local government can do.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some interesting detail here Phil.
However, would have liked you to interrogate some of the ideas more (e.g. lack of aspiration).This appears to be a favourite of some speakers at Keele. But you know as well as I that, given the right framework and leadership etc, people in Stoke can be plenty aspirational. The queues of people at the job centre seem aspirational to me.Though I suppose this will come down to semantics. What does aspirational mean? For some, sadly, it means middle class jobs and the conversion of Coalville to Weston Heights.
Likewise, you might have considered how Stoke's alternative model of the city ('polycentric') actually offers an opportunity as opposed to a 'problem'.

There is more but one really shouldn't go on.

Loz said...

Interesting stuff and it is right to say there is little or no civic pride here now - people just seem to slag off the council as if it were some kind of alien force upon which they have no control which does annoy me as it really isn't that hard to get elected and help change things if you try.

(Although literally everyone I have spoken to recently has praised the council to high heaven for getting the road-gritting right in the weather this time - it doesn't take a lot, it seems, to make people happy)

Just a note on the jobs front - I am not sure what economic levers the council pull to get employers to set up in the city, but I am aware that other local authorities made it a "condition" that employers must grant access to trades unions to speak and recruit new employees with a view to giving workers a voice without there being time to instill a culture of fear against unions.

This clearly didn't happen in Stoke or Newcastle-U-L and there are, I believe, thousands of transient workers going from warehouse to warehouse on short-term agency contracts, often being laid off on a day to day basis. This is due to there being no stabilising trade union influence or decent wider employment laws to protect them from this treatment.

This is the stark situation facing many people - particularly young people. Either face a lifetime of utter insecurity at the hands of the employers or eke out a living on what benefits are still left. If there is a culture of benefit "contentment" it is as a direct result of this hidden insecurity and fear that the employment statistics do not reveal - at least you largely know where you are with benefits - if you are on short term contracts, you have no guarantee of anything.

I believe the general political culture of deference to wealth and corporate power is largely to blame. In falling over themselves to "attract" business to the area, local politicians have sent a message that people will be grateful for ANY employment, however low value and insecure it may be. Local "entrepreneurs" such as Caldwell are revered in the press and given more airtime than any civic leaders. It is this culture of boss-worship and deference that has led to this situation where local people are sent the message they must accept only what they are given and ask for no more and employers are confident to treat people so poorly.

My partner, for example, works for a firm that has offices based all over the country. But in Stoke, they pay workers thousands of pounds LESS than they do elsewhere in the UK. Their defence for this, which is fully legally allowed, is "local market conditions".

I would like to see local politicians in Stoke and surrounding areas engage more with trade unions and push for better wages and conditions for the workers in the area. Only through strong trade union organisation can local workers win things like the wholesale levelling up of wages - the bosses we seem to have fawned over for decades are not going to give up anything unless faced with a serious fight.

(Case in point - Caldwell said he would "close down" if he had to recognise a trade union a few years back).

It is no longer enough to bow and scrape to wealth and business. There's no point just getting jobs here if they are shit jobs that people hate and have no actual value.

Boffy said...

The lack of Civic Pride is nothing new, but its a two-way street. Back in the 1980's as a Councillor I argued that it was all very good spending lots of money on prestige projects like Hanley Forest Park, but what about the fact that on every street corner there were derelict pieces of land that blighted those communities. It led eventually to the "Green Street" project being set up.

But, at the same time, I evoked some opposition by arguing that the Council should not be spending money on Nuclear Free Zone signs, or renewing the seating in the Council Chamber, whilst at the same time telling people it had no money to repair their roads!

In a paternalistic political system where people are brought up to rely on someone else - in this case the Council/lors to deal with their problems, rather than on collective organisation to deal with them themselves, its no surprise they end up alienated from the process, and like angry football fans can only call for the Manager to be sacked.

The role of the Sentinel should also not be underestimated. Its main concern is to maximise its sales. As a controversial character they were always ringing me, covering any meetings I attended in the 1980's. Attacking the Council is always a good bet, for a paper innthe Daily Mail stable, which relies on a readership who seem to revel in whipping themselves up into an indignant fury. So for years they attacked the Council for having any kind of aspiration for raising the level of Stoke. Campaigning for the establishment of an elected Mayor was precisely the kind of venture they could launch into with little cocnern for the consequences, just because it would increase their readership, just as attacking the elected Mayor when that campaign had succeeded followed as night follows day.

In a participative democracy where people's involvement in direct control over their daily lives enables them to raise their sights and understanding, the role of newspapers etc is diminished. But, as you say although such collective, co-operative organisation and activity does develop spontaneously - Trade Unions, Co-ops, Parties - it does not do so automatically. To develop widely it requires organisation, and energy by individuals. That is what the LP should have been doing, and its problems in Stoke essentially derive from the fact, that it didn't.

Riversider said...

Preston in Lancashire has very similar problems, including huge inequalities between different areas:

http://riversstream.blogspot.com/2010/12/preston-deprivation-figures.html

georgier said...

Phil
I have just picked up on this article and I need to read it in more detail and I will hopefully comment in more detail particularly on housing market renewal issues which are insidious. Its late and I have had too many Becks so no more for tonight.
Tigger

Phil said...

Cheers, anonymous.

Perhaps some of the unsaid issues will come out in the next post, which is now likely to appear sometime early in the week.

Aspiration, in wonk talk, usually translates as upward social mobility, or a code word for a British version of the American Dream. It drips in ideology and does a good job of smokescreening privilege, but a proper interrogation and critique will have to wait for another time.

For town planners, aspiration usually means copying other successful cities. But I don't want Stoke to be a carbon copy of Derby: regeneration has to be tailored to the peculiarities of each deindustrialising city, and potentially the polycentric character of The Potteries could be a strength. More will come out in the next post - there are plenty of lessons a place like Stoke can take from successful regeneration projects of medium-sized American cities.

Phil said...

Unsurprisingly, Loz, I'm completely with you on the role trade unions can play in the regeneration process. The fact we have our own indigenous trade union in the shape of Unity could help plug into that infamous parochial attitude of ours.

Phil said...

Some good sense there, Boffy. This is one aspect of Mike's talk I particularly liked: he wanted to see power devolved downwards, which can erode the ingrained paternalism in the city. This in itself would not solve anyone's problems but it can make a vitally necessary step toward cohering communities and fostering a ground-up civic culture.

Boffy said...

Phil,

Just on the role of leadership. My blog Pits, Pongs And Politics, gives some ideas about how this can be done in practice, and the importance of the LP.

To give further examples: When I was a County Councillor one active resident came to me to complain about the environment where he lived, which was not too far from me. In actual fact, most people in the City would have felt more than happy to live there. My approach was still to go down the route outlined in the above blog. He was a leading member of the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme - interestingly I always used to be suspicious of NW, but now I see it as yet another arena in which socialists should be active, and trying to use it to develop ideas about self-policing and defence squads. I suggested that he needed to set up a similar group to raise questions on the environment,and I would be happy to assist. He used the existing NW to set up this group, and I went to talk to them about the issues, and how they should organise. I left the aqctual work in that regard up to them, and acted as a liaison with the Council and other bodies. A link was made with the local school, and an "A" level Design student, produced some fantastic designs for improving a path that ran through the estate,a nd was used by hundreds of students every day. There were lots of other ideas about creating a "Park Zone" as it was near Bathpool Park, and we used some left over sandstone from building the Harecastle Rail Tunnel to produce some markers for the entry to the town. We worked with the County Museun on that, as well as the Arts Department at the school. But, all this was done really by the residents, ordinary workers themselves.

But, also specifically on the question of Regeneration, my idea was to try to set up a series of such groups looking at various areas of work. I produced a "Plan For Kidsgrove" (which I can e-mail to you if you are interested)intended to be an outline for discussion, and work by all these different groups. I got people together and set up the Kidsgrove Regeneration Forum, that brought together these various community groups, along with the necessary institutions such as the schools, police, Councils, Health Authority and so on.

Unfortunately, just after we set it up I was ill, and out of action for more than a year, and no one took up the reins. That illustrates my point that although there are plenty of nascent organisations within communties out there that can be mobilised, it does require a motive force to do the mobilising.

Boffy said...

I wanted to make some points in relation to what Loz said. If you look back to the 1950's, Kidsgrove Urban District Council was able to attract inward investment from significant companies in what were then the new dynamic industries. They brought in I-Cl, and GEC, for example. But, 40 years later, having been absorbed into it, the much larger Newcastle Borough Council, having drained tens of millions of pounds from Kidsgrove, wasn't able to retain those companies in the town. Part of the reason for that was that with available Capital funding being used as match funding, the SRB areas of Newcastle took priority.

But, also be aware of the dangers. NBC persuaded Baker perkins to move from the City to Holditch with some financial inducement. But, in the end they never moved into their shiny new glass building - used in an episode of Dr. Who - because they got an even better offer from Eastern Europe. There are other questions too. For example, a lot of money was spent on developing Telford, but it turned out that most of the jobs went to people from Birmingham rather than Telford itself. There are important development and sustainability issues around the question of how you ensure that local workforces benefit from inward investment.

In the 1980's, the City council every month had a series of grants it was giving to small businesses. At every Labour group meeting I raised the same point for each group - an amendment demanding they provided TU recognition. Every time it got the same handful of votes.

But, we have to also recognise the laws of Economics so long as we live under Capitalism. Its those laws which result in large numbers of jobs having gone to Eastern Europe, China and elsewhere where greenfield sites using the latest machines can utilise very cheap labour. The latest data shows unemployment amongst women rising less than amongst Men, and part of the reason for that seems to be that Women's wages are lower. To be honest, I'd expect that if wage levels were higher in Stoke, unemployment would tend to be higher. The only way around that is if you can provide a base for higher value production, or have other cost advantages for industries using it as a base.

Cont'd

Boffy said...

Cont'd

The problem for Stoke on that basis is that this higher value production tends to require more skilled/educated workers. The low levels of educational achievement in Stoke mitigate against that. Also firms involved in this kind of production need workers who are capable of paying back the investment in them i.e. they need to be healthy so as not to be away from work, or die early. Stoke has always had high mortality, and poor health levels, and cuts in Health Spending will compound the problems faced by Capital in the City in that regard.

The main bases of this kind of production would have to be the Universities, and associated Science Parks. In the 19th century Marx quotes the Health Inspectors reports saying that it was only the fact of intermarriage with workers from the surrounding rural areas that sustained the working population in Stoke. It may be that it will require students from elsewhere coming into the Universities, and being taken on by new industries based around them that will provide the basis for development today. Keele has had a record in relation to Medical Science going back to the 1950's, and the UCH might be a basis for that, as I see Medical science being a major growth area over the next twenty years, as the combination of IT with genetics brings forward some huge leaps.

I'm particularly interested in these kinds of developments, because these types of business are extremely suitable for Co-operative development as Mondragon is currently showing. Stoke has always traditionally had a lot of creative talent, and that does not require the kind of "academic" aspiration that is normally thought of. It means that opportunities exist for developing performing arts, design, media etc. Why there is the attitude to Media production degrees I really don't know because, Media from Film and TV, through Games Production is one of the fastest growing industries, and is very high value added.

If Stoke is to develop it has to forget about the old industries and focus on the new. As socialists we should attempt to intervene in that restructuring in ways that further the interests of workers, whether that is by insisting on TU Rights, or by promoting Co-operative production.

Loz said...

Thanks for that Boffy, really interesting commentary.

As an NUJ officer, I obviously agree with you on the media/creative degrees. I am sick to the back teeth of hearing older people, usually enjoying very nice pensions that the likes of my generation will probably never know, denouncing contemporary creative education as worthless - particularly when they would simultaneously defend such economic areas such as banking, finance, military etc as "proper" jobs - that when you think about it are actually destructive to humanity rather than progressive.

I also think the creative sector is one of the few hopes the UK has left in the current economic situation, but British Capital seems to be in a hypnotic state where all it can consider is very short term profit out of economically negative activity rather than considering any long-term investment in the future. This is indicative of a real "fear of the future" that seems to have taken hold of society in general.

Ironically media and newspaper companies are one of the very worst examples of this, maintaining artificially high profit margins of over 20% to "keep the shareholders happy" whilst simultaneously destroying the very products they rely on through staff cuts, giving away valuable content for free on the internet and general disinvestment and negativity about the future of their own industry.

Cameron's government seems to be replicating the action of local authorities in de-industrialised areas over the past decade in chasing this mythical investment in jobs. It is pinning its sole hope for recovery on there suddenly being, effectively, some giant national version of Dragons Den whereby investment comes flooding in to create jobs, but I think we all know that this is becoming less and less likely to happen.

I also agree that medical science, along with high-tech sustainable energy and resource projects, are obviously be the best strategic areas for "UK PLC" to concentrate on economically, and the government should be ploughing money into creating jobs in these two areas.

Of course they are not doing this. Instead they are replicating the destructiveness of the corporations and banking industry and not seeing past the end of the current financial year, bleating instead about a relatively minor deficit whilst secretly ideologically relishing destroying peoples livelihoods.

All of this leads me to realise that on the left we have to be bold about our positive vision for the future and start to shout about these areas for growth. Let's have a plan for huge solar panel manufacturing projects in cities like Stoke using state cash. Let's actively assist and promote in the setting up of co-operatives like Mondragon as a serious long-term alternative to short-term profiteering.

Sadly, I can't think of anyone who has come up with such a plan or delivered anything close to a vision like this, either within the Labour party or outside it. We seem to also be locked in a negative cycle of knowing what we are against and articulating why we are against it, but unable to come close to defining what it is we are in favour of. We must stop being enemies of the future.

Phil said...

A lot of medium sized former industrial cities have the same issues, River. But what do we do about them? Wait for socialism?

Cheers for all that, Boffy. Re: the jobs for Telford ending up being filled by Brummies, Derby has a similar problem. It maybe a regeneration success story but the people who've filled many of the new jobs are from outside the area. A large number have moved into Derby itself but the "notorious" areas - Sinfin, Normanton and Chaddesden remain pretty much the same as when I left in 1995.

The stuff you talk about re: Kidsgrove sounds like the sort of stuff Stoke needs. Funny you should mention it because the Renew partnership did sponsor the organisation of new residents' groupings that complement existing residents' associations. It's been a while since I last went to one but I'm on the mailing list for our local group and it's still going strong. I wonder what will happen to them now the housing project has been scrapped. Chalk that up for the Big Society.

Boffy said...

Phil,

On your last point, surely that's a question that LP members/activists have to provide the answer to. I agree with Marx that these organisations are only revoluitonary if workers want them and create them. If they rely on the State to set them up/finance them then they are unlikely to be what we need.

Loz,

Another point I'd intended to make. My old man was an AEU steward who had been sacked by every car factory in the Midlands before the War. I remember him telling me that in the 1950's there had been a proposal to bring a car factory to Stoke. He thought it would be great because it would raise wage levels and provide a better basis for TU organisation. But, he said the full-time union officials were really opposed to the idea. They had a cosy relation particularly with the Pottery bosses. A car factory would upset that, because just as a result of having a higher paid alternative, workers in other industries would begin to demand higher wages, and the full-timers would have to respond.

We probably do not have that situation today, except that the Public Sector has replaced the Pottery Industry. You do not have to look far to find Union officers in the Public Sector who become Managers. The bosses know the advantages of poachers turned game keeper, and unfortunately many of these union officers stay in position even when they do become managers.

Again its one reason we need to rebuild grass roots organisation. I doubt that the kind of investment in new kinds of production will come from the Public Sector, because the thos and management structure are simply not geared to it. The ethos is one of watching your back, and aversion to risk-taking, which is not surprising given that the number of people who are prepared to hang you out to dry if you work in the Pubvlic Sector and make a mistake is extremely high. Ironically, it usually leads to the right decisions eventually being made, but made much too late, so that by that time they end up being the wrong decisions.

In an area like Stoke, and with its environs there are lots of dynamic industries that could be developed with Public Sector initiative. More than a decade ago, asked to look at Energy Policy, I drew up some suggestions as to how, underused farm land in North Staffordshire could have been used to grow energy crops, how it could be used as locations for a variety of alternative energy systems, coupled to community generating systems. No one was very interested, despite the fact that at the time farmers were complaining about being unable to make their land pay, and were being paid not to farm etc.

My son was telling me of soemthing he's seen recently about small communities and villages being able to obtain high speed broadband immediately by organising themselves and with the support of a private company. One such I think is in Eccleshall. I think the nature of much of the new dynamic industries and technology means that it will be these kinds of organic developments that will lead the way rather than mega developments, which tend to be bogged down in bureaucracy with much of the money going to pay a few very well paid chiefs.

Back in the 1980's when I was a City Councillor and Cable was just being developed, I was asked to set up a working group with a number of Councillors, and reps from the POEU to discuss how we might take forward the cabling of the City. We didn't get very far, partly because I think some of the ideas we had, which presented a challenge to Capital's control would never be adopted by the local State. But, that is no reason that the appropriate unions, the TC, and the Co-op locally cannot form such working groups to look at how developments can be taken forward in the interests of workers.

Loz said...

It's very interesting that the idea of unused city land being used for farming came around some years ago.

I am aware that is a project, right now, potentially looking at bringing "urban farming" projects to the city...so it may yet happen. Agriculture has, so I gather, become profitable again due to the rising costs associated with importing food and suddenly the idea of a community growing its own food has become a profitable enterprise which benefits both local workers in terms of employment and consumers in terms of cheaper and more wholesome food...hey, who knew?!

I did a spell working for what was CATU. I was told at the time that it was the pottery bosses and council which blocked the big car plant from going ahead...nothing to do with the union, of course...

What you say is quite probably closer to the truth - there was a fairly cosy tie-up between the union and the local employers (in the form of the confederation) that still just about exists to this day. It would have been bad news for the both the pottery union bureaucracy and the pottery union employers if another big manufacturer from a different industrial sector had come along offering lots of work at higher rates of pay at the time.

Mind you, would the car plant have lasted any longer than pottery? A big likelihood that it wouldn't going by the experience of Dagenham. You could even argue the only reason pottery employment lasted as long as it did in Stoke is because of the artificially low wages that were allowed to continue - but that's a discussion for another day.

Whatever the truth of the tales you hear about CATU/Unity, I don't think you will find many people in the city have a huge amount of time for the local union.

In a way, it is actually unfair in these modern times as CATU/Unity operates like any other national trade union local branch in terms of giving advice, bargaining over pay, looking after members day to day employment problems and wins damages etc...it just doesn't have any strategic clout any more as the main industry it works within - mass production ceramics - is largely gone and all that really remains of any influence is a political fund for Labour candidates to try to tap into.

Unfortunately, many former pottery workers continue to blame the union for the de-industrialisation over which it actually had no control at all, whatever other errors the union may have made over time. I cannot see that attitude changing for some time yet.

The reason I go into detail on this is because I believe it is another factor as to why Stoke is the way it is today - as many local people seem to have no faith in the idea of trade unionism and collectivism (and possibly even co-operatives) as being a way forward.

I know there are very good examples of local collective action in recent years in terms of the posties and the bus drivers. But I still think the attitude many people have towards local politicians and civic leaders in the form of the council is also extended to trade unions as yet another paternalistic body that was supposed to protect them and advance their lives that has failed them in some way.

Many people in Stoke simply do not see trade unionism as a vehicle over which they have any actual control, much like the council and the government, rightly or wrongly.

Boffy said...

I'm sure the latter point is not peculiar to Stoke, which is why TU membership never rises above around 25% of the workforce. You may be right about how long a car factory would have lasted, but had it been set up in the 1950's that is still a considerable time for it to have had an influence.

That relates to the point about wage levels. Of course, we can never say what WOULD have happened, but I'd suggest what MAY have happened. That is that faced with rising labour costs the Pottery industry would have been forced to modernise back in the early 1960's. When I went to work for Doulton's in 1973, it was initially at its most mechanised factory, but it was only a small part of its output. Of course, that modernisation would have meant job losses back then, but would have meant that the remaining jobs were more secure, because the industry would have been capable of competing on global markets. I remember at the time a huge degree of compalcency about the growing Japanese ceramic industry, and comments about the Japanese only being able to copy what others had done!

But, it would have had other effects. What seems clear is that in areas where there has been a much greater diversity of industry, the effects of the downturn have been less pronounced. That is a logical outcome. I'd suggest that higher wage costs would have led to the kind of modernisation I refer to in the other staple industries in Stoke. The further consequence would likely have been that greater diversity of industries, and consequences for the nature of the working-class.

More technical industry requires better educated workers, and the kind of development I think would have happened would have set that in place. I find it odd that some socialists seem to think that there is something wrong with workers having "middle class" aspirations of wanting their kids to have good education, to live in decent houses and so on. I had to argue with a very old friend and comrade over that on one occasion when he argued that if everyone lived somewhere like the Westlands Labour would never win a seat. I'd rather argue that if Labour could be seen to be able to provide workers with such an improvement in their condition they'd never lose an election.

I think that the expereicne in Stoke today of some of the small potbanks that have been set up, and are having success shows what I have argued elsewhere, which is that either you have to focus on high value production, or like germany you have to focus on producing quality items for niche markets. The unions locally ought to get back to some of the ideas they had in the 19th Century about developing worker Co-ops to pursue that course. But, I'd argue that the solution cannot come through such small enterprises. We would need to connect them together in a wider Co-operative federation of businesses - something that privately owned small businesses would, of course never do.