As I watched the A-level results fiasco unfold over the last week – the latest in a long line of shambolic Government u-turns – it got me thinking about how this Government actually decides on what policies it is going to apply. After all, what is a Government without policies? Policies – and specifically policy reform – is what lies at the heart of our crumbling democracy.
Elections come along, manifestos are written, people vote and then we have to make do with what we’re given. In this case, we have chosen (collectively) to elect a Vote Leave Government. That probably wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the Conservative Manifesto, but that is very much what we now have. Ministers are chosen according to the loyalty to the cause of Brexit. That nobody is exactly sure what the cause of Brexit, was, is, will be or should have been, is precisely the point.
But I am not writing about Brexit today. Other than to note that we do not have a traditional Tory Government, but a very specifically Vote Leave one.
I was going to write something about the Planning Reform proposals that came out last week but that already seems like months ago. Does anyone remember? The plans are to dispense with half the democratic planning process. No. That’s not right. The plans are to dispense with the main democratic element of the current two-stage planning process – namely, the right to object to planning applications. The People (to capitalise them as the Vote Leave Government would have us do) will now only be able to contribute their thoughts and views during the creation of Local Plans. This bit of the process is usually way beyond the capacity of most people to influence as it’s technical and already bound up by rules set by the national Government. The rules were pulled together into the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011, the last time the Government decided to rip up planning rules.
The post-2011 nationally-set rules already determine how many houses must be built in each planning authority area, which makes the preparation of Local Plans somewhat less democratic than may be thought. If, as a citizen or a community group, you feel your local Council has failed to meet the tests set out in the planning system, you can take them to Judicial Review and have the decision overturned by a Judge. Except now the Vote Leave Government is planning to remove that right too.
Where do these ideas come from? Who comes up with these ‘clever’ policy reforms? In the case of the planning white paper, it’s quite easy to spot the trail of crumbs. They lead back to a familiar place – the small incestuous cabal of neoliberal thinktanks. Policy Exchange (PE) leads on this. PE was set up by Michael Gove and his mates while new Labour were in power. These particular planning reforms were incubated at PE; a small offshoot of PE called Localis; and another very small thinktank called Create Streets. Jack Airey moved from Localis to Policy Exchange (for a couple of years), before hopping into 10 Downing Street this February as its planning guru. This is his white paper.
Nicholas Boys-Smith worked at the Tory Government’s favourite outsourcing consultants McKinsey (who infamously wrote the Lansley reforms which did so much damage to the NHS) before setting up Create Streets. Boys-Smith worked with Mrs Thatcher’s darling intellectual of the (far) right Roger Scruton, on his building beautiful report. Boys-Smith will also be working with consultants on the creation of a national model design code, which will further constrain Councils when drawing up their Local Plans.
Changes have already been made to another element of the planning system – use classes. Time was when planners were able to decide, through their Local Plans, whether an area should be mixed use, predominantly housing, employment use, retail, industrial, and so on. That’s all been swept away. One consequence of this is the creation of housing from former office blocks – creating new slums. One of last year’s rash of Brexit MEPs, Ben Habib, made a tidy profit through his firm First Property from these conversions, before his brief foray into politics.
Returning to the A-Levels fiasco, it’s unsurprising to see Education Secretary Gavin Williamson blame Ofqual – the regulatory body charged with ensuring exams are marked properly, for the mess. But who was it who instructed Ofqual to make sure that, whatever system they came up with, there was no grade inflation this year? Would Ofqual have included “we must not have any grade inflation” in their algorithm as the first and most important criteria if the Education Department hadn’t stipulated it. As it turned out, in order for the algorithm to ensure no grade inflation, but also for it to take account of the fact that it was simply impossible to determine grades for very small sample sizes, such as are commonly found in private schools, the algorithm was forced to reduce grades for large state schools – especially Sixth Form Colleges – while Private School grades increased. Where might this obsession with grade inflation come from?
Dominic Cummings was Michael Gove’s key advisor at the Department for Education during the time of chaos in 2013, when they sought to push through (by any means necessary) their plans to revamp the National Curriculum, remove continual assessment and place exams at the heart of grading for both GCSEs and A-Levels. Gove and Cummings believed they were in some existential battle for the soul of England’s education with “the Blob”. This was an idea imported wholesale from the States, the idea that educational academia and the teaching profession were in cahoots to protect themselves and impose mediocrity on school students. There were probably some communists lurking in the shadows, too. Cummings is obsessed with grade inflation. He’s written repeatedly about it in his blog. He believes A-Levels have become too easy, allowing too many students to go to university, devaluing a university education.
These are two illustrations from many, showing how policy is being developed by the Vote Leave Government. One might expect, in a normal world, that Government policies, especially radical ones like fundamentally reshaping the planning or education systems, would be based on empirical studies: evidence gathering, running some pilots and reviewing their success. But this Government is fuelled by pure belief in its own righteousness, by the personal views of key individuals and, with the help of its friends in the neoliberal thinktank world, by thinktanks which are often opaquely-funded and influenced by vested interests.
After a 34 year career in nature conservation, Miles King runs People Need Nature and writes about nature and politics. He was a school governor during the Gove/Cummings chaos years.