Fresh starts

A growing murmur of complaint, in the SW1 postcode inhabited by many thinktanks, is that this is the most inward-looking election of recent times with the outside world never looking or feeling more unstable.

This is especially so with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an impending free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, which could have a huge impact on the economy and the products and services we consume here in the United Kingdom – yet which is barely a subject of discussion even in the Westminster village never mind beyond. Labour’s John Healey has been one of the few taking a lead on the issue, which surfaces into mainstream debate only due to concerns that parts of the NHS could be forcibly tendered out. The European Council on Foreign Relations’ new paper on the matter – A Fresh Start for TTIP – does not quite allay these fears, noting just that ‘largely excluding [public services] from a comprehensive deal would put the EU in a weak negotiating position’, pointing out that this is the first time the European Union has had a negotiating partner its equal economically and its superior politically. That said, Healey extracted the following commitment from the European commission’s chief negotiator: ‘We are confident that the rights of EU member states to manage their health systems according to their various needs can be fully safeguarded.’ Continued safeguards for the NHS will be a non-negotiable part of any agreement.

ECFR ranks all 28 EU member states in a table of ‘Winners and losers’, and identifies the UK as one of the likely big winners from any deal with the US, boosting its exports in particular and increasing GDP by up to 0.4 per cent. Countries like France, Greece and Poland fare less well and the paper warns that individual member state ratification could yet scupper any deal concluded by trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström.

More broadly, TTIP might have, and could yet, represent an opportunity for a political figure in the UK to tick the boxes of boosting the economy, defending public services and bestriding the international stage, all of which combine to add up to an image of real leadership. General election campaign chiefs may well be correct in their assessment that domestic issues, not foreign ambitions, win elections. Still, being seen to lead on a plan to make Europe more competitive, create new jobs and defend the NHS is a package that might be pulled together. Labour, which has historically been a fiercer proponent of free trade than the Conservatives, is well positioned to draw on this heritage.

Back home, meanwhile, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with Crisis, released the annual Homelessness Monitor: England 2015 report. Its assessment of the impact of the coalition government on the problem is scathing, dedicating a whole section of the report explicitly to the impact of the coalition:

The Localism Act (2011), together with the coalition government’s broader welfare reform agenda, serve to undermine core aspects of the national “housing settlement” in the UK, which has historically played an important role in moderating the impact of the UK’s relatively high poverty levels … Three key housing policy instruments explain these relatively good housing outcomes for poorer households in the UK: housing benefit, which pays up to 100 per cent of eligible rent for low-income households; a relatively large social housing sector, allocated largely according to need; and the statutory homelessness safety net.

The report is explicit in warning that ‘the most “pro-poor” and redistributive major aspect of the entire welfare state’ – social housing – is now under pressure on all three fronts, with a further pillar of the British welfare state under huge pressure and homelessness having risen sharply over the last few years.

Remaining on the subject of housing, March sees the release of a book by Andrew Adonis with IPPR on the subject of housing. It includes a string of case studies looking at inventive pilot projects to boost housing significantly and to build stronger communities, particularly in London. As Adonis has now ruled himself out of standing for mayor of London, but may yet be influential in any Tessa Jowell campaign and mayoralty, this publication could be an important guide to the future of housing in the capital.

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