A strategy please, not just tribalism

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From: Geoff Green

Professor of Urban Policy, Sheffield Hallam University

I welcome the letter (May 26) from Bryan Lodge, Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council, saying Labour will stand up for Sheffield in these difficult times. More convincing would be a clear strategy rather than the tribalism which many of us find alienating. Take three issues:

First, public health. We know from a report commissioned by David Blunkett from Professor Danny Dorling (University of Sheffield) that there are great health inequalities across the city. In its Public Health White Paper, the Coalition Government gives priority to reducing such health inequalities following advice from Professor Michael Marmot (University College, London), based on his World Health Organization report ‘Closing the Gap in a Generation.’

The Coalition Government also proposes in the White Paper to return responsibility for public health from the NHS to local authorities (as indeed was proposed by a previous local Labour administration). The council therefore has an enhanced role in influencing the social and economic determinants of health and reducing health inequalities. So imagine my despair when I read in your sister paper that Sheffield’s new administration is to abandon its previous ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy.

Second, the city centre. It took courage by a previous Labour administration to fend of opposition criticism and enhance the public realm of the city centre to wide acclaim. But the new administration appears to be on course only to tinker with the failed business model of the proposed new retail quarter – a clone city centre like Meadowhall or Birmingham Bullring mark II. Why not listen to Labour Party colleagues in Sheffield Central and go for a model which enhances vitality and supports independents in flourishing European cities. Then the mark of success is not increased rental income, the measure adopted by Meadowhall’s owners, but lower rents and greater variety.

Third, council housing. My own research shows the Decent Homes improvement programme is a great success, improving the warmth, safety, security and health of occupants, with cost savings to the NHS and criminal justice system. My colleague Professor David Robinson, also demonstrates from his research for the government that for many people council housing is a tenure of choice, providing a secure haven from which bring up a family and seek work. Why then is it defended only as a residualised, second best, tenure for the poor and why are we still selling off council housing under the Right to Buy scheme, denying access to new entrants.

The strong case for council housing is that it provides a decent, secure and affordable home, and is not overly subsidised (since most of the stock cost less than £20,000 to build and another £15,000 to bring up to Decent Homes Standard). There is a big difference between an economic rent which covers costs and a market rent which, as in the owner occupied sector, chases income upwards. I hope the new administration will make this strong case to the Government and indeed to the national Labour Party Policy Review.