Can we create a sane city in a mad, affluenza-affected Britain?

This was the title of a lecture yesterday by Oliver James, the author and broadcaster.  We organised it to follow a long day of student presentations marking (almost) the end of their taught programme and to build upon some of the ideas and themes we cover during the programme.

But what does this subject have to do with public administration?  We asked Oliver James to take his analysis, of an economic system he calls ‘selfish capitalism’, or more simply Thatcherism, and of the mental distress this causes (and for full and detailed evidence, you can read his books or visit his website: http://www.selfishcapitalist.com/) and to propose some ways in which a city might respond.  I will briefly summarise his ideas and offer them up for discussion.

He suggested that, were he the ‘Liverpool Tsar’ (or Czar?), he would:

  • maximise the opportunities for both parents to care for their children.  Not only is the investment in the child worth it in the longer term, but it is clear that, despite the financial costs of giving up work etc., many parents still want to do it.  So, flexible working might be a tangible change we could encourage.
  • Re-invest in state (or social?) housing – the distress (financial and mental) caused by homeownership, particularly in times of economic recession, would be ameliorated by good quality affordable rented housing.
  • move away from group day care towards minders, changing the ratio of the numbers caring for children for the same reasons that reducing the teacher:pupil ratio improves education.
  • use opportunities to transform education from a focus on extrinsic value (exam results, training for the workplace) to intrinsic value (enjoyment, curiosity, passion).

His final suggestion was that Liverpool, a city with a worldwide brand and a particular place in the national imagination like few other cities, might look to stand out and challenge the national agendas, setting out a different path.

The city and the sub region have already bucked the national trends at the ballot box.  Does this offer legitimacy to any efforts to buck trends on the policy and ideological fronts too?

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