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You know the Meriden Gap – well, here’s the West Midlands Goodwill Gap

You know the Meriden Gap – well, here’s the West Midlands Goodwill Gap

🕔02.Jul 2018

I see in last week’s Solihull Observer that there’s a campaign to have the Meriden Gap – the slightly effete label for the expanse of green belt between Coventry and Birmingham – designated as a national park.

This blog – Reader Alert! – has nothing whatever to do with that – apart from its being partly about an altogether different kind of gap that also merits increased recognition, writes Chris Game.

You may recall coming across the headline results of what’s officially known as the Charity Aid Foundation Giving (or Generosity) Index. It’s based on a massive annual Gallup Poll of some 145,000 people in 140 countries into nations’ charity or generosity – their citizens’ reported readiness to donate money, volunteer personally, or help a stranger in need.

Yes, if you like, it’s virtue-signalling on a global scale, but personally I still find it fascinating for at least two reasons.  First is the you-couldn’t-make-it-up irony that the country with comfortably (or uncomfortably) the highest overall generosity score has for several years been Myanmar (formerly Burma).

The headlined results and accompanying explications of Buddhism-in-practice make bizarre reading alongside the contemporaneous reports of the armed forces’ distinctly ungenerous treatment of Myanmar’s own Rohingya Muslim minority.

My second fascination is the UK’s consistently high position – adrift of the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but invariably ranking as one of the most generous European nations, ahead even of the Scandinavians that generally top these ‘model citizen’ polls.

It was with interest laced with a healthy splash of skepticism, therefore, that I read the latest research report from one of our most interesting think tanks, Localis – entitled Monetising Goodwill: Empowering places for civic renewal, the sub-title usefully summarising what Localis itself is about.

They’re neo-localists, meaning they’re looking for ways to reshape local economies by giving people and their localities more control over the impacts of globalization.

Which here, in a research project led by Jack Airey, entailed testing out the UK’s high international generosity rating by trying to measure the size and nature of what they label the ‘Goodwill Gap’.  See – there is a link, if only you’re patient (I never doubted it, Ed.).

It’s a neat phrase, meaning the gap between what people currently pay towards their various local services and what they might – or say they might – be willing to contribute, if they knew more precisely where their money would go.

And, of course, highly topical. For it’s just what’s been suggested in the debate over NHS and social care funding: that maybe up to two-thirds of us – and not just the over-40s, as nominated by MPs this week for a social care premium – would be prepared to pay more, if it took the form of a ring-fenced or hypothecated tax going exclusively to the relevant service.

However, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies, inter alia, has argued, there are obviously real problems in trying to fund even part of a vast national organisation like the NHS through an annually fluctuating tax yield. Much smaller-scale and more specific local services, though, could be a different matter.

The Localis researchers’ main question, in an online YouGov survey of 1,600+ respondents, was: “Approximately how much more tax per month, if any, would you be willing to pay in order to fund the following public services?” – the 15-service list running alphabetically from adult social care to secondary education and social housing.

A second question asked about willingness to pay a voluntary one-off levy to resolve a specific local problem – reporting potholes, reducing knife crime, more children’s play facilities, etc.

This idea too has been in the news recently, with Westminster Council hoping to persuade its richest residents to top up their (for them) modest Band H council taxes with a voluntary Community Contribution to help pay for local projects, and Islington (or Corbyn’s council, as sections of the media like to label it) watching the results with interest.

I’ll focus here, though, on Localis’ main question, the overall results of which are shown in the first table.

Rather extraordinarily, of the 15 services, there was only one – arts and heritage, and that by the narrowest of margins – towards which an overall majority of respondents said they’d NOT be prepared to pay anything extra at all.

Put more positively, for every single service between a third and two-thirds reckoned they’d be prepared to contribute at least something.

And towards the six most popular – public health [an unfortunate choice of term, but probably widely taken to refer to the NHS], police, fire, adult and children’s social care, and primary education – a clear majority of all respondents said they’d pay at least something, maybe up to £5 a month, extra.

The social care results seemed especially topical, given the way in which it and local government generally had been conspicuously ignored at the start of the last week in the PM’s sizable, if fantasy wrapped, birthday gift to the NHS.

They indicated, to quote the researchers (p.14), that “a majority of people across all ages, political associations, genders, classes and regions would be willing to pay more tax to fund social care.”

Responses naturally varied across services; also by gender, age, party identification, EU referendum vote, and of course geography. As shown in the second table, readiest self-proclaimed volunteers to fund additional adult social care were 18-24 year olds, followed by over-65s, Liberal Democrats, EU Remainers, and Londoners.

Oh yes, goodwill, Localis found, varies considerably by place, or, more specifically, by region.  And, if Londoners want to persuade researchers that they’re in this sense the UK’s most generous-minded citizens, then inevitably there has to be an apparently least generously inclined region.

And on this specific measure, in this sample, the region with the highest proportion of respondents unwilling to pay anything extra at all to fund adult social care was, you guessed it, the West Midlands.

Our Goodwill Gap, between what we reckon we currently pay and what we might be willing to contribute if we knew more precisely where our money was going, was in this instance the smallest in the country.

OK, it could be that West Midlanders, if not actually the poorest, are simply the most honest, but that REALLY isn’t even among the main points to be drawn from this research.

First must be the very sizeable Goodwill Gaps EVERYWHERE that the data reveal – among all groupings and irrespective of gender, age, politics, region, and even views on Brexit.

Second must be the message that LOCAL authorities, from the Greater London Authority to even parish councils, should, as Localis puts it (p.7), “be encouraged to explore the possibilities of levying hypothecated taxes and levies at the local level”.

Which thirdly should be accompanied by ministers being prepared to abandon their, in Europe, uniquely repressive practice of dictating what THEY think constitutes an “excessive” level of the only local tax they permit local authorities to have.

That’s the Goodwill Gap that really needs closing – the gap in ministerial goodwill towards local councils and their own elected leaders.

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