Friday 17 August 2012

The politics of playing fields

I have a small confession to make. I was the one who suggested that an independent panel should be set up to recommend which applications for playing fields should be approved and which should be rejected. The reason I did so was because such decisions are never black and white, and it made sense to involve the strongest critics in the decision-making process. So while I think he has made a serious political error, I have some sympathy for Michael Gove this morning, as he is assailed for approving five applications that the panel had rejected. But I also think the case highlights the need for far greater transparency in the whole process - and greater honesty about the issue on the part of the media.

In 1997, after thousands of playing fields had been sold off in the previous decades, Labour set a presumption against the sale of school playing fields for the first time. Schools should generally not sell off playing fields, except in circumstances where doing so would not reduce access to sport and the proceeds would be used to provide better sports facilities at the school. Around 200 applications were approved between 1997 and 2010 and in these cases such criteria were met. After 2001, the decision-making process was effectively delegated to an independent panel where critics of the sale of playing fields were included so they had to look at the reality of the issue on a case-by-case basis. The presumption against their sale was also strengthened a little.

I suggested the independent panel having spent many hours poring over the applications on behalf of ministers and discussing with officials the precise reasons for any case that they planned to recommend for acceptance. Although some such playing fields were overgrown disused patches of land, there were also cases of viable playing fields that were being sold to make major improvements in the quality of sports and other education in a school. Inevitably, however, there were strong opponents to each sale and each approval attracted widespread criticism. Hence the independent panel.

So, while I have some sympathy with Gove this morning, I think he made a major political error not accepting the recommendations of the panel. And he was also unwise to reduce restrictions on the amount of space that schools have to provide for sports. Remarkably, since the panel was established, there has been virtually no controversy about the sale of playing fields. Fields in Trust - as the National Playing Fields Association is now called - sits alongside representatives of headteachers and local authorities to act as an independent and fair-minded jury on each case. By overruling the panel, however justified he may have felt he was in the individual cases, he has re-politicised a process that had effectively been de-politicised. More importantly, the publicity around today's story may have made it that much harder for the panel to take genuinely independent decisions.

There is one aspect to the panel's workings that should change, however. They should have to publish their decisions on a regular basis. The Telegraph claims this morning that these are not made public. When I suggested the panel, I certainly assumed that their decisions and membership would be made public. There is no justification for this not being the case, as happens with the Schools Adjudicator on admissions, for example. That said, there must still be occasions - not many, it is true - when it is in the greater interest of pupils to sell a playing field to provide superior sporting facilities than it is for that land to remain largely unused. To their credit, Fields in Trust, through their participation in this process, recognised that reality. Others should too.

John Rentoul quoted from this post in his Independent on Sunday column.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Autumn challenges for Clegg and Miliband

As he contemplates the next parliamentary year from the comfort of his Spanish holiday, the Deputy Prime Minister will have plenty of time to consider the perils of coalition. With a stand-off between Nick Clegg and David Cameron over constitutional reform, it is becoming increasingly clear how little the Liberal Democrats have gained from being in power with the Conservatives.

There are two reasons why this is so. First, Clegg failed to secure unconditional support for key policies from Cameron. He won a referendum on the alternative vote, but had no guarantees that his position would not be trashed by his coalition colleagues. Instead of just having a referendum, he should have made boundary changes conditional on AV being passed, and put both on the ballot. Now, rather belatedly, he has chosen to link the constituency carve-up to the failure to get Lords reform through. It looks petulant done this way, and does Clegg few favours in the eyes of voters.

But the second failing was not to insist that the Conservative Parliamentary Party be asked to endorse the coalition agreement in the same way that Clegg gained the support of his Liberal Democrat colleagues. This has allowed many Tories to take a pick-and-mix approach to its measures. This was, of course, as much Cameron's failure rather than Clegg's, but it was a weakness of the whole arrangement.

Of course, a bigger problem for Clegg is that on measures where his party gained seats, notably tuition fees, he has accepted a position the exact opposite to that which he argued for during the election. The concessions on repayment thresholds may make the loans more attractive to some, but have made the finances of higher education less sustainable. Clegg would have been better insisting on a lower cap on fees which might have appeared less daunting to potential students in the future.

Where the Lib Dems claim some credit for policies delivered - the pupil premium and a higher tax threshold - it can plausibly be argued that they are delivering policies that most Tories willingly embrace. The pupil premium also featured in the Conservative manifesto. But. so far, its failure to link with a national funding formula and to recalibrate the much higher premium inherited from Labour, means that it is often being used to mitigate cuts elsewhere in the budget rather than for proven measures that could tackle achievement and aspirations among target students.

If he is to regain some of the credibility he enjoyed before the last election, Clegg needs to be ready to revisit the coalition agreement in the autumn, and establish some key priorities for the second phase of the government, some of which should reflect the reality that George Osborne's economic policies are not working as intended. Top of the list should be a serious investment package in national infrastructure, one that starts to have a real impact on the economy, and a stimulus to service industries that pump money directly into the UK economy, perhaps through targeted VAT reductions for tourism-related industries or a strong incentive package to boost UK education. He should also try to put a halt in both cases to the Home Office's unstinting efforts to deter tourists and students from spending their money in Britain.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has benefited from the coalition's woes, but still lacks a strong enough policy on the economy and taxation. His challenge for the autumn is to put flesh on a policy that goes further than heckling 'I told you so' at the Chancellor. Ed Balls has argued for VAT cuts, but they need to be targeted on services and industries that are largely home-grown if they are to improve growth, not add to the trade deficit. Stella Creasy has rightly argued for a wholesale bottom up review of all public spending, with value for money at the heart of it. And the focus on any extra investment must be on infrastructure - both small-scale, such as restoring individual school capital budgets, and large-scale, including sorting out London's airports. Miliband has gained stature in the last year: this autumn is the time he needs to translate that into economic credibility.