Saturday, June 30, 2012

Losing our Independents

Gutted to discover this morning that the UK Independent newspaper will no longer sell copies in Ireland, North or South, apparently due to distribution costs (online link to be added when I find it). Online content will still be available free, of course, and apparently the i will still sell over here.

The response of most people will be: get over it, get online or buy the Guardian. And given that the paper is a private operation, I’m sure that ultimately nothing can be done to change what is presented as a commercial decision.

And to get the online argument out of the way – for me personally, as someone who blogs, Facebooks, Twitters and generally spends more time than is good for me in cyberspace (including reading other newspapers), for years there has still been nothing like feet up with a cup of tea and a copy of the Independent, away from the screen. I shall miss it. Of course there’s a wider public policy argument about digital exclusion, but obviously the Indy doesn’t care about that.

My three points about the significance of this decision are rather different, and they do only relate to Northern Ireland. Should the paper wish to continue selling in the Republic, it may do so on the same basis as other foreign publications, with an appropriately higher price. But, first, in Northern Ireland, we are part of the United Kingdom, whether or not individuals think we should be. This means we share the tax system, welfare benefits (through a parity agreement), and defence and constitutional matters. Our block grant to the Assembly is decided by the UK Treasury. We need to know what is going on in UK politics, and the Independent’s news coverage and features in this area are exemplary. Incidentally their coverage of the eurozone financial crisis by Ben Chu is also outstanding.

The second point is – what will happen to the paper’s coverage of Northern Ireland? Assuming that NI readership will drop without a full paper edition, and given the lack of interest over the water, does it mean that the Independent will no longer provide reliable reporting and analysis in this area? Again that would be a great loss.

Third, it sets a worrying precedent. As times get harder, will other UK newspapers restrict their circulation to more populated areas? Surely it costs no more to transport papers to Belfast than it does to the Scottish Highlands and Islands? Are they next?  And which papers might be affected? – most likely the papers of record. Comments on the Guardian’s reporting of this story today include concern about this.

So in future my cup of tea will be supplemented by the Guardian, a poor substitute in my opinion. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Social housing policy in Northern Ireland: has devolution made a difference?

The provision of state-subsidised housing allocated according to need – nowadays referred to as ‘social housing’ – has been of great policy importance in Northern Ireland since around 1945, as described in Charles Brett’s fascinating book ‘Housing A Divided Community’ (1986, out of print). This wasn’t always for the right reasons, as housing allocations were in some places used for gerrymandering and protests about this in the 1960s were an important part of the development of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the founding of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in 1971 with the express remit of providing equality in housing (a remit they are regarded as having delivered on extremely well), debates about housing need and territory have never gone away.

Over the past year or so I’ve been reflecting on social housing policy in Northern Ireland since devolution, and particularly during the 2007-11 administration during which local elected representatives were involved for the full period. The result is a working paper: Policy difference and policy ownership under UK devolution: social housing policy in Northern Ireland’.

The starting point was to recognise how important social housing policy is to all parties here, and how that commitment has, if anything, increased since 1999. For example, the Committee for Social Development held an inquiry into Housing in Northern Ireland during 2001-02, very early on in the life of the Assembly, where the call was first made for a housing strategy for Northern Ireland, following the example of Wales. But subsequent legislation has been used mainly to bring social housing policy in line with England, and no overall housing strategy has been developed from that day to this although we are told that a consultation document will be available in September.

The paper also reviews three key issues for social housing from the 2007-11 administration: the governance of social housing; the procurement of new social housing; and improving access to shared space and a shared future. Governance is currently under scrutiny with the delayed report on the organisational review of the Housing Executive awaited eagerly: I hope it will include a stronger and more streamlined regulatory mechanism for social housing providers. The procurement of new social housing is undergoing change driven by EU procurement policy and the drive for efficiency at both UK and NI Executive level. And the social and economic advantages of mixed community housing are becoming more obvious and better supported by the public over time, but the major challenge remains to give people the confidence to share space in more contested areas.

So has devolution made a difference? In terms of policy, not really. But I came across a concept developed by another academic, called ‘policy ownership’. What this means is that our politicians moved towards presenting Northern Ireland policies as their own, and appropriate for the jurisdiction, whether or not they were original. The turning point was Margaret Ritchie’s promotion of the New Housing Agenda in 2008, which, I said:

... marked the beginning of a new phase in Northern Ireland housing policy, in which the previous technocratic approach, dominated by officials, was to be supplemented - although not replaced - by more direct political control by the Minister for Social Development (p.10).

It’s not surprising that this has happened. Of course politicians are going to take the credit for popular policies, such as providing homes. Whatever we may think about current politicians and political parties, the best option for Northern Ireland’s democratic future is that local political control is here to stay. If we as citizens regard the political system as inadequate then we have to do something about it.

It was also clear from some interviews I carried out that the more direct involvement of politicians was not welcomed by many others involved in social housing policy-making and delivery. The dynamics of the policy field had shifted, and I think this continues to cause problems not only in housing but also in other areas where we have seen difficulties with making decisions, such as education and community relations. During the 2007-11 administration, governance issues were regarded as having had far more impact than economic change on policy-making. It’ll be interesting to see whether this remains the case over the next few years, as cuts begin to bite.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

You can’t eat a flag

Having lived under the yoke of several desperately inefficient London local authorities, I have a huge amount of respect for Belfast City Council. I love the parks, the events, my compost bin and the City Matters magazine. I know the Council is genuinely committed to promoting the city and creating jobs through economic development. I also respect the work that’s been done on good relations. In general, I’m a very happy little ratepayer.

However, the Council has now decided to get cracking on the issue of flag-flying. Following a meeting last week, it is most likely that the Union flag will no longer be flown every day from City Hall, or if it is then it may be joined by other flags. Six options are to be put out for consultation (although as yet the consultation document is not available):

  1. Continue to fly the Union flag every day
  2. Fly the Union flag on designated days such as the Queen’s birthday
  3. As above plus extra days ‘when appropriate’
  4. No flag at all
  5. A new, ‘neutral’ flag
  6. Both the Union flag and the Irish tricolour flying alongside each other (unclear for how many days a year)
I’m not saying the issue doesn’t matter. The Belfast Telegraph story has attracted 185 comments so far, and the Facebook page around 150. I also do believe it’s time to look at the possibility of change and I appreciate the chill factor element embodied for some in the Union flag – in fact, as an English person who lived in London during the 1980s, I have my own instinctive recoil due to its use by the far Right in those days.

What I object to is the consultation element. Apparently we are to have 16 weeks to make up our minds what we think about this, and the Council will make a final decision on November 1st. Well, how about I predict the results?

  • Unionists/ loyalists: Option 1
  • Liberal unionists: Options 2 and 3
  • Middle ground types such as Alliance supporters and myself: Options 4 and 5; majority of civil society groups also here. CRC offers to run competition for schoolchildren to design new flag
  • Liberal nationalists: Option 5 (amendment: and 4)
  • Nationalists and republicans: Option 6; republicans as a transitional stage to Option 7, Tricolour only.
No doubt there is a legal reason why there needs to be consultation, but I would like to see some leadership here. Belfast City Council includes elected representatives from all the groups listed above. Councillors should have the courage to debate this difficult issue and come to a decision themselves. To present the public with a series of options is an abdication of responsibility.
Not only that, it’s also expensive. How much does it cost to run the consultation process, including an analysis of the responses, the writing of another committee report and the time taken to debate the issue all over again? At the current time, economic development should be the Council’s top priority and the decision on flag-flying should be the one that contributes the most to making the city feel safe and attractive for investment as well as for those of us who live here. Make a decision, councillors, and then get out and sell it to us.