This story, as with so many of Gove's travails, involves school buildings. Photo: Getty
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Michael Gove's mistake: Why you can't take politics out of public spending

All such decisions are inherently political. Politicians can come up with a formula based on an objective set of numbers – but which numbers they choose, and what they do with them, will always be a matter of judgement.

Last week, in a move that threatened to shake the very foundations of our world, Michael Gove admitted he'd made a mistake.

Okay, “admitted” isn’t quite the right word: the written ministerial statement, released at lunchtime on a Friday (when every self-respecting education hack is looking for a story), managed to blame both Labour and local authorities for the cock up. Nonetheless, the substance of the matter remains that the Department for Education (DfE) had promised something, found it couldn’t deliver, and now everything is going to cost more and arrive late. The affair tells us much about the difficulty of de-politicising the systems through which central government doles out cash.

The story, as with so many of Gove's travails, involves school buildings. One of the Tory party's main criticisms of Labour's mammoth construction programme was that it was wasteful – that its largesse was focused not on the schools with the most dilapidated buildings, but on the councils that shouted loudest about deprivation. The coalition’s smaller replacement programmes would put an end to this, by distributing cash solely on the basis of physical need; maintenance funding was meant to be handed out in the same way.

This is easier said than done, though, because no comprehensive survey of England’s schools existed (Labour scrapped the requirement on councils to conduct one back in 2005) – so since 2011, the government’s been conducting one. Most of the work’s been done by a trio of construction consultancies; to save money, though, where councils had continued to collect their own data, the government intended to use that. The whole thing was meant to be done by last July.

It wasn't. In his statement on Friday, Gove admitted that the council data had turned out to be both “inconsistent” and “inaccurate”. As a result, those consultancies were going to have to survey another 8,000 schools, and the whole thing won’t be done until next summer. Gove didn't tell us how much this would cost, but those firms aren't going to work for free; the first 11,000 surveys reportedly cost around £30m.

So, this is a cock up. But it is, on one level, the good sort of cock up: the kind you want your government to be making. It tried to use a shortcut, found it couldn't, and quietly backed down. Yes, it'll cost, but it would have cost anyway. At least they were trying to save money. No harm done.

On another level, though – nobody saw this coming? Are you kidding me? Of course the data is inconsistent, what kind of miracle would it take for 90 councils to produce comparable data, with no guidance whatsoever? And as for “accurate”, one of the things that triggered this whole exercise was a suspicion that councils were gaming the system, crying poverty to get themselves bumped up the waiting list. Did it really not occur to anyone that council surveys might be slightly on the biased side?

This isn't going to have much of an impact on the current school building programme: the DfE has already decided which schools were most deserving of its largesse, without the benefit of this grand survey (this, one might think, raises questions in itself). But it does mean another year of handing out maintenance funding based on pupil numbers, rather than actual need.

More than that, though, the affair highlights the difficulty of coming up with an “objective” basis for making public spending decisions. These surveys, construction consultants tell me, are always mildly subjective: a slight difference in judgement can, scaled up to an entire school, mean a big differences in cost.

What’s more, when it comes to school buildings, the whole notion of “need” is as much art as science. Research on the effect a building has on how much learning happens inside it has been limited and contradictory. If one school does well with a poor building, while another does badly with a better one, which is more deserving of scarce public funds? What if one school, in relatively good nick, could be improved with a small investment, while another, worse one would cost vastly more to patch up? Which should be prioritised? There’s no “correct” answer to these questions: all such decisions are inherently political.

This is a pattern you see time and again in government financial decisions, on everything from NHS spending to council funding to who should pay the most tax. Politicians can come up with a formula based on an objective set of numbers – but which numbers they choose, and what they do with them, will always be a matter of judgement.

In the scheme of things the cost of this latest mess is small, and it’s better to have this database then not to have it. But the notion that any system for allocating scarce schools capital funding could ever be “correct” was always a pipe dream. You can’t replace politics with science.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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