Posted by: davidjmarlow | 24/12/2015

Do you believe in Father Xmas?

This is the first Xmas since 2011 that I have not written a piece for what became quite a popular Placemaking Resources blog, posted roughly fortnightly from 2011-2015. The blog became a monthly column in Planning in March 2015, behind the journal’s paywall – a sign of the times?

Looking back on my four Xmas musings, 2011-14, takes us on something of a musical story of the coalition and local growth. In the dark days of 2011, the focus remained on Pickles’ destruction of regions and any vestiges of New Labour. Surveying the wasteland of austerity-driven public policy and ‘big society’ (i.e. cheap) localism, the economic professional could legitimately reflect on BandAid’s ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, such was the absence of seasonal cheer.

By 2012, in the aftermath of the Heseltine ‘No stone unturned’ review, and the promises of city and growth deals, one could envisage the ’12 days of Xmas…’ unlocking a range of gifts that might drive local growth and development over the ensuing 12 months.

2013 was, in retrospect, both prescient and insightful. Prescient – because the use of ‘My favorite things’ anticipated this season’s Aldi advert!; insightful, because, even then, it was clear that Government’s tendency towards ‘making it up as you go along’ policy (now sometimes referred to as ‘policy by sound-bite’) would be an enduring signature of Osborne’s tenure at Number 11.

2014 rounded off the series – suggesting it had taken the coalition most of its term to, essentially, get back to where local growth had been in 2009. It also counselled local leadership teams’ to plan for the long haul (i.e. beyond the ‘Osborne decade’), to make genuine, substantive and sustainable progress in devolution and local growth.

For 2015, there is actually quite a lot to cheer – ‘Powerhouses’ and ‘Engines’, jostle with devolution agreements that may provide the platform for the long run progress envisaged at Xmas 2014.

However, I have to say, my most powerful and enduring Xmas anthems, remain those with a twist of disappointment or cynicism in the superficial jollity of the season.

‘Do they know it’s Xmas’ was the 1984 Number One (and my 2011 lament). It compares the absolute poverty of much of sub-Saharan Africa with ‘our’ frivolous celebration of wealth and excess at this time of year, and incites ‘us’ to do something about it. The World Bank GDP per capita figures for 1985 (30 years ago) gave the poorest country (for which figures were available) as Guinea-Bissau with an income of US$152 per person per year. By comparison this was around 1/60 of average UK incomes and 1/120 those of the US. Ethiopia, on which Band Aid particularly focused, was the tenth poorest country in the world with an average income of US$232 per person.

Global Finance has just published its 2015 figures. Guinea Bissau has jumped 10 places (to 11th poorest in the world), and Ethiopia five. Of the poorest twenty countries in 1985, fourteen are still in the poorest twenty, thirty years later; and the highest risers over that period is Vietnam (now 60th poorest) and Bangladesh (46th). None of the African risers have escaped the bottom 40!

Vietnam’s 48 place rise is impressive, and sits alongside countries like India (41 places) and China (a huge 82 places). In general BRICS and MINT countries have seen significant relative increasing wealth, so there is a case for optimism that destinies can be changed over a generation. Even Ethiopia has moved from 1/60 to 1/24 of UK and from 1/120 to 1/35th of US wealth per person over the three decades. The poorest country now, though – Central African Republic – stands at 1/60 of UK and 1/90 of US wealth per person – pretty similar to the scale of differences thirty years ago.

There is, therefore, an underside to Xmas narratives. It despairs at inequalities, slow rates of economic and social progress; and always gives our shallow enjoyment a bitter-sweet taste.

Alongside BandAid, probably my two other favourite Xmas anthems both peaked at Number Two in the UK charts. Greg Lake’s ‘I believe in Father Xmas’ reached #2 forty years ago. Penned and performed by a committed atheist, it bemoaned the commercialisation of the saccharin holidays. It’s video juxtaposed the song with images of Darfur (ten years before BandAid) and the Vietnam War.

And the other best #2 - you have to dream, even if ultimately disappointed

And the other best #2 – you have to dream, even if ultimately disappointed

Apparently ‘Fairytale of New York’ is the UK public’s all time Xmas song favorite – and it is certainly in my top three. A ballad of misplaced hope and failure, like Greg’s piece, it peaked at Number Two, in 1987, usurped by Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Elvis’s ‘Always on my Mind’. MacGowan and MacColl, like Lake and BandAid, captured something quintessential about the darker fears never far from the surface of complacent festive bonhomie.

Is there read across from BandAid, ‘I believe in Father Xmas’, and ‘Fairytale in New York’ to the landscape facing the committed, passionate UK development economist this year?

The BandAid story, just about, remains a symbol of hope that, over a generation, some places can turnaround and reinvent themselves. It is often forgotten that in the 1970s and 1980s London’s employment contracted by over 600,000 jobs net, as the city de-industrialised, prior to its transition to a high value services economy. There shall be BRICS, MINTs, and other transformations in UK cities and non-metropolitan areas – if local leadership teams can stick with it for the long haul. There may, though, also be enduring challenges where the ‘band-aid’ is just not enough.

In the remainder of the ‘Osborne decade’, perhaps we have to look at Lake or The Pogues to recognise that sometimes ‘second best’ can be brilliant and better than good enough. With all the complexities, uncertainties, inconsistencies of current approaches to devolution of local growth – it is still better to be firmly on that journey and part of the game, rather than waiting for the perfect solution to come along.

Hence, I shall be travelling hopefully into 2016. Greg Lake put it wonderfully – let’s make our own destiny this Xmas and beyond:-

“They said there’ll be snow at christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell
The christmas you get you deserve”

Season Greetings and all the best for 2016….

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