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12 may, are mayors a level up ?

The relics of organisational structures larger than local councils but smaller than national government are a rarely visited cabinet of curiosities. The next wave is emerging. In england at least, "metro" mayors and combined authorities - let's just call them mayors for short - are beginning to look like a distinct tier. To every part of government, the layer below is incompetent and that above remote, but mayors are shaping up well as statutory supercouncils between voluntary partnerships like the northern powerhouse and western gateway and local authorities that quickly hit borders in search of economic development levers over transport, spatial planning and business support, the powers better managed at the functional economic area level that CAs were designed to extract from central government. Noting london is slightly different and the north east still evolving, mayors now cover 41% of england's population, 43% of its economic output and 14% of its land mass, the disparity no surprise as mayors were designed for big cities: london in 2000, and then manchester the first to use the now-standard CA model. The original modern city was closely followed by (full names here) liverpool, birmingham, tees valley, bristol, and cambridge, then sheffield and newcastle and finally leeds. Mayors will grow: 10 areas tried and failed, and at least 8 more are in the works. The geography is messy but symptomatic of the system's strength, generally born from council's upwards pressure rather than a central government blueprint. Indeed, mayors (aside london) have little power to act independently of their council leaders. Most integrate with LEPs, and some pragmatically stray into policing (the london, manchester and leeds mayors are also the PCC) and health (manchester). Though they show little signs of it yet, there is an economic logic in the mayors quietly looking inwards at the scaling up of service delivery, starting with non-core shared service centre type functions, though even that risks treading on their patrons' toes. A wonk sounding but important driver of eu integration is qualified majority voting, meaning no veto over decisions that apply to all. That is replicated for some CA decisions, though not for its most controversial power to raise revenues (via council tax), as birmingham, and manchester on spatial planning, found out. Such powers drove the evolution from technocratic CA to directly elected mayor. This crossed party political lines, being started by labour then continued by the conservatives, with neither a particular champion and both hesitant, a sign they are genuinely independent sources of democratic legitimacy. In the first round of elections, half the mayors (plus london) were from each of the two main parties, but this time around, with turnout up, they tipped decisively to labour, who now have 8 of the 10. As ben houchen and "king of the north" andy burnham showed, being mayor offers a wider soft-power platform if skilfully used, alongside the single point of accountability for negotiations that george osborne back in the day insisted on in return for powers and budgets. The mayors have progressed, with more likely to join the party. In one of the most centralised countries in the world, that is a good thing.

17 march 2021, shine on you crazy plankton

Ras al hadd is a case study in many things. Without electricity until 2001, seeing it now feels like development, paid for by oil, has taken yet another bite out of the world's wonderful wilderness, although the omanis no longer wandering around at night with candles may disagree. Many of the houses are rudimentary, children are in the street asking for chocolate and the local fishermen are paid an absolute pittance for the finest grade tuna that if it could get there quick enough would sell for hundreds of dollars in japan. Tourism, of course, is seen as a solution, but is and will remain a faint dream in this backwater of the coast where the gulf of oman meets the indian ocean. Good thing too, it is easy to think, as you walk through the white sands staring at the greenest of seas in this bucolic village. The big draw is the giant green turtles who swim literally thousands of miles to sri lanka and then come back years later to bury their eggs in the same sand. Seeing them pop out hundreds of ping pong ball eggs, as we were lucky enough to when a local took us there, is itself a wonder of the world you want everyone to see but know that if many more did it would kill them. Already, those village lights create great harm. Whereas once the thousands of tiny turtles that hatch and poke their heads above the sand every night in the season and run to the moonlit sea had a chance against the gulls and foxes, today they see only the bright lights of streets and houses, and almost all die. It shouldn't be beyond the wit of the authorities to fix and fund this through sustainable tourism, but it hasn't happened yet. The turtles are also drawn to the sea by the coast's real star: the legendary but rarely seen fluorescent plankton, and we were even luckier to be there on a night when it shone. Like the Northern lights, it is hard to describe this fabulous freak of nature. As the waves roll in, they become tipped in bright blue light, which glows intensely as the water breaks on the beach. Then, as the tide recedes, it creates a galaxy of bright shining stars on the sand that light up like a reflection of the night sky you always dreamt of seeing. Your feet sparkle, your hands, your eyes. It is absolutely mesmerising, and as long as we spent marvelling at the turtle, we spent five times longer with the plankton. Properly managed, plankton is the future, of this place at least.

2 march 2021, any time, any place

Back when we wrote the strategy on which a decade of successful policymaking in manchester was built, most chapters flowed easily: housing had people and initiatives ready to go, the environment was a dynamic growth area, transport was equally laden with long-term strategic vision and shovel-ready projects, skills bursting at the seams, governance and international as ever my party pieces, and the economic golden thread of agglomeration that bound it all together had been woven by genuinely world leading academics such as henry overman, ed glaeser and diane coyle. The runt of the litter though, was "sense of place", where the policy waifs, strays and bright ideas that didn't fit elsewhere washed up. This may seem odd for a place as vibrant and brashly confident in its identity, but when each of greater manchester's component parts weighed in, there were far more different parts than the whole. We did not want anodyne platitudes riffing on sustainable clusters, diverse competitive ecosystems fighting inequality with ladders of opportunity and safe, healthy and happy spaces, let alone a post-industrial revolution climate change greenwash (manchester: we started it, now we'll finish it). Strategy is important though, words make worlds. There is no economic development magic dust to sprinkle, but radical, coherent, strategic place-making can work, and is needed especially now as the speed of change increases exponentially. Today a barista, unheard of back then, is a more popular career than a barrister. With tribal and communal identities, place-based and not, more salient than ever, tying together the citizens of here, everywhere and nowhere, whether or not they want to be anchored, is a critical success factor for any place, as is attracting people to move there, charging and changing those places with new lifeblood. Ultimately, places are made by people.

10 january 2021, oag and out

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So, this particular stage of my journey has now come to an end, as I leave oman aviation after a wonderful few years in muscat. I was there as the much-loved but old and dilapidated airport was transformed into the best airport in the middle east, indeed the world's leading new airport, in a totemic sign of the radical transformation of the whole country in 50 short years. I have made many friends here, at oman airports, oman air, transom, and of course the group, so many more I have worked with at various ministries, agencies and especially the private sector, the country's future. Aviation and tourism in oman may be down, but they are not out. The cliches about the omani people being so warm & welcoming are true and the tourist offer is so good, the calm, the vastness, the magic, that it will come good, and with projects like the astounding oman botanical gardens still to come, it must be that tourism & aviation in oman has a bright future. That though will be for another time and another team. Meanwhile, we will be staying around until the end of the school year and trying to make the most of our time here.

12 december 2020, trousers optional

Whilst odd at the time, now I am back in the office full-time, those many months "working from home" have a rather romantic hue. Despite the vaccine-fuelled race back to normality, those blurry backgrounds look to be a permanent feature of our work lives. Neither generational shift nor temporary blip, but inevitably something in-between, covid has bequeathed the comforts of home, if we are lucky enough to have them, as a halfway house feature of the eternal work-life balance debate. Inequalities of course will out, not only fading wallpaper, but poor wifi and loose kids are all on show, and more personal discipline is needed. Less traffic and commuting is a big plus, but video conferences rob us of the many benefits of mixing, networking and being amongst others, especially for juniors that just see things happen and learn from them. It's also bad for city centre coffee shops, though better for local towns. What blackberries started with after-hours emails, working from home takes further. It's also easier to hide. Some employers have boldly embraced the change, like linklaters, salesforce and twitter, cutting costs drastically. Lighting and heating bills are in practice just shifted to the employee at home, though it is not beyond the wit of the tax system to recognise and mitigate this (as it does for the self-employed) if government wants to give the trend an encouraging nod. Offices certainly lack utility without a critical mass of people bouncing off each other. Homes cannot help but throw up breakfast, chores, family and other barricades to speeding effectively through the working day. At its best though, home can also be a calm oasis, removed from calls, meeting and people running in and out to pass the time of day or pick your brains on some minor matter of the latest initiative. Working from home offers many benefits, and the future is surely a better mix for those companies and people wise enough to explore and innovate with their time and productivity to find a new balance between tech and tedium.

25 november 2020, europe: taking stock, edging forward

As the dust clears on the american election, the standard holder of the free world is somewhat tarnished. The new president will adopt a different lexicon and approach to global matters, but a still divided and inward-looking nation will not reverse the general downward drift from its unipolar moment to merely primus inter pares in the global community. Russia will continue causing storms and china changing the climate, as it showed with the recent asean regional agreement for an integrated trading zone that now encompasses some 30% of global trade and population. Other blocs though do exist, with the eu still the world's largest single market. As washington wanes and beijing becomes bolder, more than ever it is time for europe. Yet, two decades after the birth of its common foreign policy, the bloc is still well-described as economic giant but political dwarf. On the surface, things look to be getting worse, with the loss of its most influential player and its reaction to covid stubbornly persistent regulation at member state level. Even in such an inherently interdependent area as aviation, the eu has not been able to coalesce around a single set of rules. Beneath the waves though, the duck is paddling hard. With america back on the world scene, europe is again its natural partner, and in macron and merkel, there is experienced leadership. Once over its current budget squabbles, a 7-year settlement is a solid foundation, and many hope trump's loss presages that of the eu's own populists, so helping an emergence from the current bout of eurosclerosis some have diagnosed. This is usually followed by strides forward in the european project. In fact, these can already be seen, largely building on the new machinery put in place after the financial crisis a decade ago, like the eba, esma and esm, which is now coming of age. The most notable eu legacy of the crisis is the €750 billion "next generation eu" recovery fund, a genuine gamechanger not only in its size but because it is the commission, not member states, that is borrowing, and much of the disbursement is grants not loans. The stabilising effects of the ecb's €1.3 trillion pandemic purchases also showed, again, europe's monetary heft. Externally too, in areas like north africa and the middle east, europe seeks to be more muscular, as it should be in containing russia and engaging with china to avoid a world split into two ultimately competing halves. Like everywhere on earth, now is challenging, but a progressive europe is on a continuing long-term upwards trajectory, which can only be a good thing for everyone.

10 October 2020, slowbalisation

The economic story of the last 50 years is globalisation, capped by china joining the world trade organisation, and, for europe, the single market and euro. That took a knock with the 2008 financial crisis, a downward trend sustained by the deepening bifurcation of global trade between the usa and china, which has seen tariffs pop up and a deep-rooted tech war, most recently with huawei, wechat and tiktok. Links are still strong, with american investment in china continuing to increase and the chinese still reliant on american infrastructure like payment systems. Despite being championed by trump though, economic hostility to china is a bipartisan consensus in washington and covid has brought trade flows crashing. Brexit can also be seen in this context, as populist protectionism has increasingly moved from aberration to norm in global governments. With cross-border trade down at least 20% this year, 2020 looks like the end of the globalisation era. Everywhere the response to the pandemic has been viscerally national, defined by hard borders and different rules and internal regulations, even in supposedly unified economic zones like the european union and united states. The world seems totally unable to coalesce around single rules even for such inherently international sectors as aviation. The trend is intensifying, with supply chains being redefined, trade barriers raised and normal diplomacy on semi-permanent hold. The end of globalisation is also being hastened by the inability of international institutions like the wto to operate, in that case symptomatically and severely wounded by american vandalism. Covid has accelerated to warp speed the national rush of short-term interventions to mitigate the tidal wave of economic slowdown unseen since the last world war. Then, energy, transport and heavy industry, a much larger slice of the economy than now, were effectively nationalised for the war effort, making today's subsidies look rather tame, even as they apply some brakes to every day's news of more job losses, bankruptcies and sectoral meltdowns. To fund its actions, governments are borrowing on a massive scale: the uk just hit 2 trillion pounds. The hangover of the last crisis, the lowest interest rates on record, makes this borrowing easier, but it all needs paying back eventually, meaning higher taxes and the whole range of negative multipliers further lessening economic growth for maybe the next decade. Offshoring was already moving to near-shoring, but now long supply chains and just-in-time production are top of the risk register of every business. This is accentuated by synchronised demand shocks in areas like healthcare and pharmaceuticals. Not all is doom and gloom. Services, increasingly online, are about a third of global trade and rising, and are inherently more resilient, which is good news for global leaders the us and uk (though china is catching up quickly). And whatever washington wants, omelettes cannot be easily unscrambled. Europe might helpfully assert itself a little more in the bridge-building role it aspires to. 2021 at least cannot be worse than 2020, though of course that was the mantra in 2016...

2 july 2020, of mice and, you know

It's a tough time for events people that work in the (jargon alert) meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions space, and isn't going to get easier any time soon. Fueling over 1 in 5 international trips, mice is a serious beast. Every industry has its annual shindig, networking, awards, agm or whatever descriptor for movers and shakers getting together and getting things done on the margins (end of jargon). It's going to be rather smaller now though, indeed positively virus dead at the moment, but trying to restart. Falling into the lethal mass gathering category, this is tail-end stuff for most countries' planning, though some, like switzerland, with its solid tracing scheme and 'clean & safe' labelling (expect versions of the same across the planet), are waking. As in every other walk of life, the virtual has filled the vacuum of the viral-ridden physical. Though utterly unsatisfying (it is now traditional to start work conversations with "if I have to sit through one more webinar..."), virtual meetings are evidently better than nothing. Many major events facilities, like in london and new york have been repurposed into hospitals; all, including oman's splendid icon, risk extreme underutilisation. The calculus of high-risk travel physical-meeting costs versus anytime-anywhere screen interaction benefits have changed seismically. Even when planes are flying again with some regularity, the hangover will be long-lasting, with fewer routes, greater costs and higher unpredictability, even as to whether you will be let in at the border or return home without quarantine. Zoom is worth more than the world's top 7 airlines combined. Events companies will close and accelerate diversification. The contact that is the lifeblood of events is now an inherent risk your spouse doesn't want you to take. The pleasure of the journey, the meeting's add-on bleisure opportunities, the warm body-language of greeting have all evaporated. Drinks at a distance. We are all more transactional, and all very quickly learning to be better at doing it virtually. With headline 2021 events as diverse as the oscars, expo and the geneva motor show already postponed and cancelled, it's clear this is long-term impact, more likely permanent. Virtual eventing will innovate and roar forward. The new normal for in-person events will inevitably be safer and sullen, not so much for the older and more vulnerable, lacking in key people, less worth harder travelling large distances for. For all that, it will always be better, and so while it may take a long time, a new, new normal, and some cheese (pronounced vaccine), the mice will return.

15 may 2020, air travel reboots, but not quite as we know it

Air travel will bounce back from its current 95% global drop, but it will never be the same. The last decades saw relentless growth, from 310 thousand air travellers in 1970 to over 4 billion in 2019. More planes, travelling further and faster, holding more people with less space but cheaper, partly as the industry made its mass market money turning journeys into experiences with ever more touchpoints to be savoured by trading up. At a stroke, air travel has again become about essentials, getting from a to b, with as few touchpoints as possible, less people on planes, each needing more space, with less moments to make money and fearful travellers not in the mood for it. All as new health and safety costs get loaded on. The shape of those are becoming clear: masks and gloves throughout the journey, lots of temperature and other health tests and checks, using airport space instead of friends and family, semi-permanent ad hoc quarantine or tracking (app or bracelet) arrangements on entry, health/travel not nationality-based, so 21st century-equivalent of when you needed an address before getting an entry visa. Airport arrivals may become more burdensome than departures. Current wait time in hong kong is 8 hours. This will no doubt reduce as test tech improves, but like security after 9/11, expect this to be permanent not temporary, like longer queues, the acceleration of contactless airport processes (self-check in, bag drop, face recognition etc) and lots more cleaning and disinfectant, probably by booths and robots. Whilst empty middle seats look unlikely to embed, seats with visors might, as may eating only wrapped food, one of many first-class frills to disappear as an era of minimising contact makes inflated prices harder to sustain. As business and economy cabins converge, after a possible short-term drop as demand outstrips supply, prices will be much higher, making air travel head back towards being a product for the few of the seventies not the many of the noughties. Don't write off the low-cost carriers though, who with much lower operating costs than legacies which can't get subsidies forever are likely to emerge with an even higher market share. Expect savage fleet downsizing, insolvencies and consolidation. We learned to love flying these last years, the journey becoming part of the adventure. Not any longer.

18 april 2020, xi trumps absent america

Commentators pointing to putin as the trump years' beneficiary don't have their eye on the ball. Since america's unipolar moment in 1999, china is easing its way to becoming the new indispensable nation. In his excellent article, Kishore Mahbubani cites the pandemic as the start of the asian century. Obama's pulling back on active american leadership set the stage for trump's outright america-first isolationism, with its unilateral sanctions (like iran), wholesale vandalism of the post-war international architecture (latest, the who) and its bullying unilateralist trade policy. Until corona, this held his domestic coalition and support, but caused irreparable damage to america's global influence, "the ruination of america's reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner". Trump has "insulted america's friends, undermined multilateral alliances and chosen confrontation over cooperation". Corona moved this from ineptitude and dishonesty to hostile, reckless actions, such as the "hijacking" of protective masks bought by germany and the attempt to buy monopoly rights to a german coronavirus vaccine. America is now an active opponent of multilateralism. As washington has stepped back, so in mirror image has beijing stepped forward. Despite suspect casualty numbers and an initially negligent reaction symptomatic of such a prickly authoritarian regime, the narrative is now of a strong organised state reacting with purpose to eradicate corona. Its advice is being freely shared through a global charm offensive, together with all sorts of masks, ventilators and other protective kit it is keen to be seen gifting globally. This builds on years of projecting china's model of strong economic growth and civic stability, an increasingly attractive counterpoint to increasingly sclerotic and divided western liberal free market capitalism. It has invested heavily in global infrastructure, through belt and road. Corona is strengthening the state and reinforcing nationalism everywhere with mandatory emergency measures that ultimately rely on force for implementation: china's normal modus operandi. China is playing its part in debt forgiveness, but this may have a price. The dollar faces its first serious threat as the global reserve currency since 1945. China is not there yet. When it was a soft power rising, the world was willing to play, such as joining its tilt at american imf-hegemony, the aiib. Today, the eu commission warns against the depressed price of strategic firms risking chinese acquisition. China's domestic policy has a harder nationalistic edge, and its internal troubles, from crass intolerance to outright violent suppression are more on show. As a trade behemoth built on just in time supply lines, china will suffer from post-virus reshoring and a broader reverse in globalisation, as well as from trump's relentless trade war against it. This is though a moment. China is risen, america withdrawn; the stakes are high, the world distracted. China's goal is not global domination but influence enough to stop anyone constraining it. It is succeeding. A fluid multipolar world results, to no-one's advantage. Chatham house's rob niblett sees corona as the straw that may break globalisation, replacing global economic governance with a retreat into overt geopolitical competition. Or worse, protectionist division into new great power blocs with their own supply chains. The 1930s were not a happy place.

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