Thursday, 19 December 2013


Recently I visited my mother. She reads the Daily Mail
 Now I know that the Daily Mail is a dreadful newspaper, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there was something that leapt out at me from that Saturday’s edition that made me bring it back home with me, and to write this diatribe against it. 

 I just hate the Daily Mail. It makes my skin crawl and, if it doesn’t make your skin crawl too, you perhaps need to be asking yourself some questions.  

Friday 13 December 2013
Friday 13 December had not been a major news day, but:
•  In Syria, al-Qaida-linked rebels kidnapped 120 Kurds.
•  There were riots in Bangladesh following the execution of an Islamist leader.
•  The Belgian Senate voted to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children.
•  A French government report recommended allowing Muslims to wear headscarves in schools.
•  News broke that a Chinese naval vessel had tried to force US warship to stop in the South China Sea.

•  The Iran nuclear talks stalled amid rows over US sanctions.
•  John Kerry reported that Israeli-Palestinian talks were going well and that a deal was possible by the end of April.
•  In the USA, a student opened fire at Colorado high school.
•  In London, 59 rare Beatles songs were released for sale, and
•  The Geminid meteor showers peaked.
… so it had not been a day when there was NO newsworthy news to report in Saturday’s paper.

Did the Daily Mail report ANY of these arguably important world news stories?
No. Instead we were treated, yet again, to a manipulation of ‘stories’ designed to indoctrinate us, to brainwash us into a Daily Mail state-of-mind.

Directed bile
Take the front page.
The main headline – fully a quarter-page in its own right – screamed:

The headline, of course, referred to allegations made in the trial of the Grillo sisters, who were accused of defrauding Ms Lawson and her former husband, but the article (which also filled most of page 4) was much more interested in lurid accusations about Ms Lawson’s private life. ‘While the trial is about the alleged defrauding, it has often appeared to be more about Miss Lawson’s marriage to Mr Saatchi’, confided the Mail reporter gleefully (and disingenuously, given that it was he who had made it so).
What angered me most about this headline were the inverted commas - an acknowledgment that the Mail knew this was an unproven allegation ... but they were headlining it nonetheless.  Outrageous.

The other headline on the front page, under a picture of Labour front-benchers Harriet Harman and Jack Dromey, ran:

Readers were directed to a two-page spread (pp.12-13) which implicated Harman and Dromey, through their involvement in the 1970s with the National Council for Civil Liberties (later ‘Liberty’) with a group (Paedophile Information Exchange) which had sought at that time to liberalise public attitudes towards paedophilia.
Despite a large sub-head which asserted that Harman and Dromey were ‘linked to group lobbying for the right to have sex with children’, the article was exclusively smear-by-association, and most of the article focused rather upon lurid narratives about the fate of various PIE activists.

It is worthwhile remembering this Mail journalist’s technique – invoking moral outrage whilst revelling in the prurient details … we will meet it again.
However, what struck me most at the time about these front-page stories was that they were both so aggressive, directing accusation at individuals whom we seemed to be being recruited to hate.

In fact, much of the newspaper seemed determined to get us to hate and despise other people in some way or other. Worst of all was the double-page spread: ‘Platell’s People’, which simply spewed bile indiscriminately on a range of prominent and successful people. Words like ‘oaf’, ‘deluded’, ‘misguided’ and ‘demean’ peppered the page. Basically, everybody was a worthless fool, except Ms Platell.
•  On page 47, Heffer did the same, attacking such as civil servants, MPs and teachers.
•  On page 24, the police were criticised for publishing a (well-meaning) poem about arresting a sex-attacker – apparently it trivialised sex attacks.
•  Jack Dromey appeared again on page 33 – this time for describing his postman as a ‘Pikey’.
•  Damien Hirst came in for it on page 42.
•  On page 45, Susan Boyle falling ill on the Jonathan Ross Show, apparently, had sparked fresh SuBo mental health fears.
•  Page 50 was about Lord Edward Somerset beating his wife, and
•  Page 51 attacked the ‘irritating’ Gwyneth Paltrow ‘where mystical New Age crackpotism meets rampant capitalism’. 

It was all negative, and it was all nasty. I came away with a bad taste in my mouth. What is the effect, I wondered, on people who read this hate-filled bile day after hate-filled day?

Moral outrage 

Much of the Mail’s bile against humanity is wrapped in the cloak of moral outrage – a journalistic technique which allows the reader to feel justified as they hate … and at the same time to self-indulge also in mild voyeurism.

The most blatant example was on page 21, where an article claimed that parents are angry at Beyonce’s X-rated new album and video (‘which even include her one-year-old daughter’) … whilst including pictures of the pop-star nearly-nude, and phrases such as ‘writhing around on the floor in her underwear’.

The spread on pages 30-31 was even worse, detailing the story of a woman who was:

… but was now waiving her anonymity to demand justice. This story included explicit descriptions of the rape.

Similarly, page 48 detailed the activities of a boy of 14 who was admitting to 12 sex attacks; and a double-spread on pages 54-55 described a visit to the outback camp of an incestuous family cult in New South Wales, Australia … along with (as you would by now expect) explicit details of their ‘mind-numbing, wicked sex-games’.
Why is this 'news'?  What relevance does it possibly have for people in Britain ... except to mildly tittilate?  Disgraceful.

This hard-copy-through-your-letter-box edition of the Mail did not have the semi-pornographic obsession with girls-in-bikinis of the Mail Online, but even so there was enough sexual detail to leave me with a very negative image of your average Daily Mail reader, tut-tutting judgementally, whilst gobbling up the dirty details. Hopefully it’s not true, but that’s the mindset the Mail clearly believes it has to pander to.

I knew the Mail hates foreigners, but I had not appreciated the full extent of their propaganda until I started to count the xenophobic articles:
•  The EU are bad-uns, of course, and there was a story about Brussels warning the government against using English language tests to refuse entry to migrants. Those meddling eurocrats, insisting we follow the law!
•  There was a story about European countries banning unlicensed villa rentals, which will damage the finances of Brits who have bought holiday villas abroad and want to rent them out over the internet. Again, those pesky foreigners, wanting emigrant Brits to obey their laws!
•  Apparently an Iraqi is suing the MoD to stop British soldiers shouting(!)
•  A fake bride who had a baby ‘just so she could stay in Britain’ warranted an article (remember, this is bad, not sad).
•  And a double-page spread described how foreign students are ‘fleecing Britain’ by taking out a student loan and then not paying it back when they return home.

A double-page spread on Kim Jong Un in Korea followed a familiar angle. Again, we were encouraged to fear and despise the dictator who has moved from PlayStation to murder … but the text treated the reader to tittillations such as ‘arms and legs scooped up by the bulldozer’, ‘one prisoner blown apart by mortar rounds’ and his Moranbong girl-band ‘who wear spangly mini-skirts and heels’.

Of course, foreigners who are morally questionable are even more hateful, and we were treated to a half page (p.33) with photographs of a father in China flogging his semi-naked son for truanting, and a long article on page 40: ‘This is how we do it in India, said doctor as he groped a patient’s breasts’.

Page 14 was an ideologically confusing page, with half of it devoted to an attack on the BBC for its ‘excess’ of reporting on the death of Nelson Mandela (an issue repeated in the leader), whilst the other half was an article on … the death of Mandela.

Right-wing trash
Women 'who choose to look after their children full-time’ are, of course, right up the Mail's anti-feminist, traditionalist street, so I could have expected an article bewailing the financial pressures they face – the Mail would have all women out of the workplace and into the kitchen.

But I was surprised by how few ‘bash-the-benefit-scroungers’ articles there were.
One headline complained that ‘three in four benefit cheats avoid prosecution’ – as it turns out, the DWP often choose to give fraudsters a ‘civil penalty’ (a fine of up to £2000) rather than take them to court

Page 10 had a full-page article headlined:

… a dream article for the Mail, because it allowed them to be enraged about immigrants AND the union Unite at the same time. These bloody unions, thinking that people should know their legal rights!

Page 12 offered the Mail another double-whammy – a witch who had won an unfair dismissal case against her Sikh employers, who she accused of mocking her religion. A textbox headed ‘Naked Ritual and Plenty of Spells’ offered the vital information: ‘some Wiccans perform rituals in the nude’.

Be afraid, be very afraid
By contrast, however, I was alarmed at just how many articles encouraged readers to be afraid, and depressed at the ‘terrible’ state of the world today.

According to this Saturday’s Daily Mail:
•  A ‘Bank Chief’ had warned that the housing market was ‘at risk of boiling over’ (he hadn’t at all, by the way - on the contrary, he had welcomed the upturn in housing, and simply assured people that the Bank would watch the market to make sure that it didn’t overheat as it had done in the past).
•  Pages 16-17 carried a double-page spread by Dominic Sandbrook entitled ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ – it was about how ‘our modern obsession with materialism is destroying communities, friendship and self-discipline'.
•  One woman had been mauled by her ‘maniac moggie’ (you’re not safe even in your own home).
•  Police were hunting yobs who had beaten a pony and left it in a canal to drown (p37).
•  A PSCI had brought a claim after she fell over a fence on a 999 call – a classic ‘what-is-the-world-coming-to’ Mail article.
•  An arguably ‘feel-good’ article about how a young wife had chased away a raider who had attacked her husband was a two-edged sword, because it held out the image of a world where you can answer your door … and find a knife-wielding robber there.

Yesterday, by sheer chance, I listened to someone else criticising the Mail on YouTube, and he told the story of his Mail-reading grandfather, who – when asked whether he would like to be young again – had said not, because the world today was just such a more awful place than it was in his youth. This man had lived through the Depression, the Second World War and three decades in fear of nuclear annihilation, but he still genuinely thought things were worse today.
The speaker openly blamed Mail’s ‘modern-life-is-shit’ propaganda for ruining his grandfather’s dotage; the Mail, he claimed, had helped to transform his grandfather into a frightened old man, who locked his doors and windows to keep out a world he was convinced was evil in every way.

What kind of person reads the Daily Mail?
Are all Daily Mail readers right-wing, prurient misanthropes, leching over the sexual details as they condemn the world from their armchairs?
I fear some of them are, but I fear much more that that is what the Daily Mail is turning its readers into.

What must be the long-term effect on these people’s state-of-mind, I wonder, when they are bombarded, every day, with a world-view which tells them that the world is full of evil, crime and failure?
The Mail is a daily dose of the most negative, harmful bile, and I am horrified to think of the damage it must be doing to its readers’ attitudes.

We get worried when youths watch too many ‘video-nasties’, or spend too long playing violent computer games. We fear that it will warp their minds, and we make them come downstairs and do something wholesome.

But do we not need to ration how much of the Daily Mail our pensioners are allowed to read?
Do we not need a ‘health warning’ on the Daily Mail:


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Great Council Tax Lie

The government has just announced its funding settlement for next year, entitled:
'A fair deal for councils and fair bills for taxpayers'.

It is a lie - it is not fair at all.

If you live in the north of England and have ever moaned about your Council Tax, read this.

At our end - Council Tax
County Durham has 237,000 properties. Not all are liable equally to Council Tax - smaller properties pay less, larger properties pay more. 85% of County Durham properties are in Council Tax bands A, B or C ... 60% of them are in Band A. Thus, although County Durham has 237,000 properties, their money-raising potential is reduced because they are generally low-value properties.

This is not the case throughout the country.  Take, for instance, Surrey.  Surrey has just 23% properties in Bands A, B and C, of which just 1.5% only are in Band A.  Thus Surrey County Council's council-tax-raising potential is high because it has generally high-value properties.

When calculating the tax-base, therefore, Councils tend to use a notional number of 'Band D equivalent' properties to indicate their council-tax-raising capacity.
Durham - with a population just shy of half-a-million - has 129,047 Band D equivalent properties (one Band D property for every 3.8 people).
Surrey - with a population a little over one million - has 493,987 Band D equivalent properties (one band D property for every 2.2 people).
In raw terms, therefore, £1 on the Council Tax raises almost twice as much revenue for the County Council in Surrey as is does in Durham.
Put another way, the Council Tax a Band D property pays in County Durham has to meet the needs of nearly four people - in Surrey, a Band D house has to pay for the needs of just over two people.

At their end - Government Grants
All this would be bad enough, but those four people in County Durham need much more care than the people in Surrey,  In County Durham there are generally more elderly people, more people out of work, more deprived families, more ill and disabled people etc. than there are generally down south.  So, while the money-raising capacity of taxable properties is much lower in County Durham, the needs they have to meet are much higher.

In the past, the government used a formula-funded grant to meet these needs, but this government has changed all that.  'Needs' are no longer paramount.  At one point government grants supplied four times as much of the County Council's revenue as the County's Council Tax receipts.  No more.  By 2017, the government will have more-or-less halved the grant-funding to County Durham - a total cut of £223 million a year on 2010. 

Instead, the government is allowing Councils to keep half of the business rate - which is all well and good, apart from the fact that County Durham's industry is weaker than business in other parts of the country.  Thus, in 2014-15, Surrey is expecting to get £140 million from the business rate - County Durham (half the size of the population), just £32 million (less than a quarter of the revenue).

If you're happy for the weak to go to the wall, I suppose this is fine and dandy, but is it 'fair'.

In the middle - why is my Council Tax so high?
I am often asked why our Council Tax is so high.  I hope this article goes some way towards explaining.

At the one end, because we are generally a poorer society than down south, our properties yield less per £1 of Council Tax, but have to fund a greater need.  At the other end, we face a government which refuses to acknowledge need, and wants regions to provide their own revenue via the Business Rate.

By any moral yardstick, this cannot be regarded as 'fair'.  It produces the scenario we face at the moment - of a Council forced to cut its services to make ends meet.

The Street Lighting changes which have caused so much complaint in the local newspapers will save just £1 million.  The Garden Waste collection charge which has created so much anger will save another £1 million.
By 2017, the Council has to save £100 million - a cause for sober reflection.

So, ask yourself - do *you* think that the government's funding settlement is 'fair'?

Friday, 15 November 2013

Aycliffe Needs to Respond to a Time of Change

Few people who voted for the Tories and Lib Dems in 2010 can have had any idea how radical this government would turn out to be. The Welfare Reform Act of 2012 has ushered in a devastating series of measures – of which universal credit, the benefit cap, job-seeker sanctions, ATOS disability assessments and the ‘bedroom tax’ are only the most high-profile.

How should Newton Aycliffe respond to this challenge?

The Contributory Principle
The Tories and Lib Dems have changed the underlying principle on which our society is based. Newton Aycliffe is famous as the town which embodied Beveridge’s post-war ‘Welfare State’, and we have lived ever since under the protection of a regime which accepted in principle the old socialist adage: ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’.
The ‘Welfare State’ – at least in those terms – is now dead and gone. A structure of benefits and protections remains in place, but the underlying principle has changed and we live now under the canon of: ‘to each according to their contribution’. It is deemed ‘fairer’, and it plays well with many people. So if you wanted a world where benefits were cut until they were inadequate to live on, where disabled people were mercilessly reassessed, where unemployed people were proactively sanctioned, and where some people on benefits were harried out of their homes… you’ve got what you wanted!
Of course, these changes affect some parts of the country more than others, depending on the level of local deprivation. Researchers estimate that the County Durham economy stands to lose £188million a year because of the welfare changes – a cut equivalent to £565 per working-age adult. The national average cut is £470 per adult. The south-east is generally less-affected.

Cuts to Councils
What has been happening to individuals, of course, has been mirrored in the government’s treatment of councils. The government has also been changing the principle by which it allocates funding to local councils – away from the old Rate Support Grant (which distributed support according to deprivation), giving them instead half of the Business Rate. This, of course, is very good news for the City of London. It is not such good news for County Durham, where the economy is relatively weak, but cuts to government grants will reduce the County Council’s income by £222million by 2018.
The result is that – at the very time our most needy and vulnerable people are being hit by welfare cuts – the power of the Council to step in and compensate has been removed. Durham County Council is barely half-way through the process and, as the financial noose tightens, we face eye-watering cuts to front-line services. People are, understandably, angry about changes to street-lights and garden waste collections; yet the County Council still has £100million more to cut from its expenditure.

What can we do?
These changes are being imposed by the Tories and Lib Dems on ideological grounds, and they are coming whether we like them or not. And while I am confident that Aycliffe people will vote for a Labour MEP in 2014 and a Labour MP in 2015, the colour of our government in the future will depend on how people vote elsewhere.
So what can we do, as a community of people upon whom these changes are being imposed?

1. Budget-setting
On 23 November, if you go to the Participatory Budget event in the Youth Centre (11am till 3pm), you will be asked to take part in a ‘Monopoly-board’ exercise where you can have your say on where the cuts should fall.
Taking part in this exercise is the first thing we can do. Indeed, I cannot stress how important it is that people take time out to attend and undertake this exercise, because – as it struggles to balance the budget over the next 5 years – the County Council will make its cuts in those areas you have indicated are least unacceptable. We cannot stop the cuts, but we can protect certain areas – at, of course, the expense of others. If you do not have your say, you may find that cuts are happening to which you have not given your consent.

2. Business

The second thing we must do, as a community, is embrace economic growth. Changes to benefits and council funding – with the multiplier effect – will strip perhaps 10% a year out of the County Durham economy … money that would have been spent on food, and wages, and clothes, and a myriad of other things on which the business life of our county depends. Hitachi offers us a wonderful opportunity for growth, but Hitachi alone will not even begin to compensate. We need to become a community geared for growth, where our planning regime attracts businesses, where our schools equip students for the world of industry, and where our town buzzes with entrepreneurial energy. If you attend on 23 November, please do not vote to cut the Regeneration budget, because without economic growth our society cannot survive … not in the present climate.

3. Charity
And the third thing we will have to do is to grow in charity. Because the Tories and Lib Dems have got it wrong. You cannot force everybody into work when there are eight times as many applicants as vacancies. You cannot fine people into smaller homes where there are no properties with fewer bedrooms. And simply declaring people fit for work does not allow a disabled or ill person to get a job. A ‘welfare’ system governed by the contributory principle is no welfare at all, because it ignores the simple fact that some people cannot, or have never had the opportunity to, ‘contribute’.
So, in our merciless new world, society has to step in where government has withdrawn; which is why I welcome my wife’s decision, as this year’s Mayor, to support the foodbank at St Clare’s.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Why Russell Brand is a false prophet

This post comes well into a long and acrimonious debate.

It was started by Russell Brand, who called for 'revolution'.
Brand was then challenged by a number of writers, not least Robert Webb.

He was then supported by Nafeez Ahmed.

This is my comment on the debate, with particular reference to Ahmed's article: 

Democracy under attack
Ahmed's article is simply one vapid nincompoop supporting another.

It is reminiscent of many of those writers in the 1930s who attacked 'broken' democracy and encouraged people to step outside the system and seek a 'better' way (in the 1930s, that meant fascism).
And Ahmed and Brand are as wrong now as Moseley and Northcote were in the 1930s.

The thing about democracy - its one advantage as a political system over all others - is that, when it is 'broken', it carries within it the mechanism to put things right.
That mechanism is the vote.

Of course, Brand and Ahmed are bit players in the political game, and it is typical of the Left that we should spend so much time ripping apart the very people who should be fellow-travellers! 

Democracy faces a much more coherent and organised threat from the corporatists, who are using the recession to take over whole states.
But the defeating of them is just the same - the vote.

And that is why I can agree with Brand - effete, rich, hypocritical, immoral elitist that he is - right up to the point where he urges people to abandon the democratic system.
At that point, what he has to say is simply music to the ears of the corporatists.
Because that, of course, like the fascists in the 1930s, is exactly what they want.
If they can reduce democracy to apathetic chaos; if they can consign it to the dustbin of the rejected ... then the way is open from them to move in.
And the form of government with which they replace democracy will not allow of any real change ... without revolution, real revolution, bloody revolution.

A recipe for disaster
For the moment, however, Ahmed and Brand are posturing within the cocoon of safety offered them by the very democracy they seek to overthrow.
Brand wouldn't last two minutes in a real revolution. And Ahmed is living in a fool's illusions where he is going to wave a magic wand and, shazam, the world is going to right itself.

Read Ahmed's article. Apart from re-iterating, yet again, the 'broken democracy' themes, it is only at the very end that he tells us what we might do to bring in the millennium.
Here, therefore, is the critical paragraph:

"Civil disobedience and occupying public spaces ... occupying mainstream political spaces ... intensive, organised grassroots campaigning, lobbying and dialogue with political actors; occupying media narratives [and] new equitable forms of production, consumption and exchange; occupying food and energy spaces by pooling community resources to grow our own food and produce our own energy in our communities; and so on."
By this, apparently,
"a new, emerging post-carbon paradigm will be co-created by people themselves from the ground up".

Best of luck.

Firstly, of course, how do you organise all this in an anarchic world where you are extolling the virtues of disengagement? It will be interesting whether we see Dr Ahmed sleeping rough outside Parliament this winter, or whether he chooses to continues his desk-bound career as a writer for the Guardian instead.

But, secondly, does anybody with even the smallest smattering of historical knowledge think that an extended Occupy campaign and a resurrected Digger movement will dislodge the corporatist oligarchy which currently dominates our government? All it will do at most is give the excuse for the authorities to further restrict our democratic freedoms, and hasten the fall of our only real way-without-bloodshed back to power.

The REAL - and much easier - answer
And what makes all Ahmed's twaddle particularly galling?
The irony is that we do not need Occupy movements. 

We do not need to go back to our allotments and prepare for food-exchange.
We already possess the power to change things.
It is called democracy.

First, we all join the Labour Party and force it to adopt the grassroots socialist policies it ought to be advocating. Then we all go out in 2015 and vote it into power.
Couldn't be easier - no sleeping rough, no spadework ... just meaningful mass-engagement.

But then we live in a world where people are too apathetic to attend political meetings or put a cross on a piece of paper.
So I suppose it is easier still to sit and roar with approving laughter at a comedian who is advocating a course of action few of his audience will have any intention of even considering.

The abiding danger in this, however, is that democracy's enemies - of which Russell Brand is a self-declared ally - will have reduced our democracy to an impotent shell before people realise that they have to get off their backsides and change the system.

Because - if they succeed in that - we will have by our inaction have condemned our grandchildren to a world where terrorism, bloodshed and suffering are the only way to change the government.

So please, people, wake up!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Pick a side and step along...

A tweet by Labour Left partisan @MagsNews has summed up the conferences and hit the nail on the head for me: 
"Cameron turns his guns on young claimants while Mr Miliband puts energy moguls in his sights."

The Fat Cats state their case
It sums up the current difference between the parties, and gives us a real hook for campaigning: 

Who do you blame for the country's current problems - the NEETs, or the fat cats?

Of course, the fat cats - along with IDS and the Daily Mail - would have us believe that it is the NEETs, with their lazy 'something for nothing' attitudes, who are bringing this country to the verge of collapse. The fat cats call themselves 'wealth creators', and tell us that unless we give them more and more money, we risk armageddon.

Personally, I've know some NEETs who were naughty, but they've never struck me as being in the 'destroyer-of-worlds' category. Ultimately, I cannot see the justice in punishing people for some misfortune of health, redundancy or birth. It strikes me as simply unfair to fine people for having a spare bedroom when there are no other houses available, or to sanction jobseekers when there are not enough jobs.

The Tories are bailing out the bankers, handing over the NHS to the corporations, giving tax breaks to the rich - everywhere I see the fat cats being rewarded ... but for what? There is no 'trickle down', and things are simply getting ever-harder for the majority. 

The Labour alternative
By contrast, Ed has set out a Labour stall which promises an appropriately firm approach to welfare and spending (nobody is suggesting that we want class war) ... but which nevertheless also demands an appropriate contribution to the benefit of society from the fat cats

No wonder they and their media lackeys are squealing.

Labour is saying that it's time we ALL played our part for the good of our society.

Pick a side and step along.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Motion to Full Council of 18 September 2013 to mitigate the ‘bedroom tax’

The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ has been a social catastrophe for many of our communities’ most vulnerable people. I have therefore submitted to Council a motion which uses the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 to make a proposal to government to mitigate the social damage of the under-occupation penalty.
This blog explains why this approach is worth a try and, hopefully, will persuade councillors to support this motion.

The Sustainable Communities Act (2007)
The Sustainable Communities Act (2007) was a Labour measure. The idea of the Act is that – if a community thinks a certain rule or regulation is damaging the local economy, harming local democracy, or undermining social inclusion – it can go to the local council and ask it to submit a proposal, under the Act, for the government to remove that barrier/problem.

As soon as I found out about it, it struck me that this Act was a perfect vehicle to mitigate one of the effects of the under-occupation penalty (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’).

The Social Catastrophe of the ‘bedroom tax’

The 'bedroom tax' - whatever you thought of the principle behind it - has turned out in its application to be a social catastrophe.  This has been well-documented in the newspapers.

There is one aspect of the ‘bedroom tax’, however, which I think is particularly cruel and unjust … which is where affected tenants get trapped because they are unable to downsize because there is no suitable accommodation available.

One vulnerable gentleman I met whilst I was campaigning this May sticks in my mind. He had moved to Newton Aycliffe many years ago. Because no one-bedroom accommodation was available at that time, the then Sedgefield Borough Council had put him into a three-bedroom council house. Now, however, on his £70 a week, paying the ‘bedroom tax’ on two spare rooms was utterly impossible for him. There was, however, still no one-bedroom accommodation for him anywhere in Aycliffe. So he was being fined under the under-occupation penalty, but was unable to leave for a smaller house … and simply stacking up arrears. It struck me as a kind of retro-active entrapment.
There was some talk of him perhaps being able to get a place in Ferryhill Station – a suggestion which enraged his neighbours, who had looked after him for a decade. The cost to this gentleman, even if he managed to escape the financial trap of the ‘bedroom tax’ was the loss of all his social support mechanisms, all his contacts, and all the security that he so desperately needed.

It was, in fact, an unarguable example of a rule or regulation damaging social inclusion in its application.

And it is this aspect of the ‘bedroom tax’ (therefore) which we should be able invoke the Sustainable Communities Act to mitigate.

The Basic Idea
My suggestion, therefore, is to ask Durham County Council, under the Sustainable Communities Act, to submit a proposal to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

That proposal will ask, for a period of two years, where suitable alternative accommodation is not available, that tenants liable to the under-occupation penalty should be exempted, until suitable alternative accommodation can be found for them. The justification will be that this will allow Registered Providers a breathing space to implement adjustments and strategies necessary to find/create alternative accommodation for them (which we all know they are trying very hard to do already).

I have taken advice from the County Council’s legal officers – who say that such a proposal would indeed be valid under the Sustainable Communities Act. So I have submitted a motion to that effect to the Full Council of 18th September.

Arguments for the proposal
I fear that, for many people, this will seem too mild a proposal – they would have preferred instead a full-blooded demand for the abolition of the ‘bedroom tax’.

I, too, have many problems with the ‘bedroom tax’.
I have campaigned against it, and attended demonstrations against it.
In a perfect world, I would do more than simply ‘mitigate’ it.

However - given the fact that there is a 'bedroom tax' and that for a number of years to come we are stuck with - it makes sense that, if there is a mechanism to mitigate it, we might as well take advantage of that mechanism to try to do so.

So I would ask you to give the idea a chance, and to think about it.
I hope you will agree that it is worthy of support.

Firstly, my motion does not try to make the moral argument against the ‘bedroom tax’ and demand its abolition – to be blunt, plenty of people (including the United Nations, no less) have done that and the government has just ignored them. My suggestion, by contrast, uses a government law against the under-occupation penalty. It asks the government, not to abolish the ‘bedroom tax’ law, but merely to use another law to mitigate its effect, in a specific circumstance … in the exact way the Sustainable Communities Act was in fact enacted to do!

Moreover, since all it is seeking is a two-year moratorium to allow RPs to adjust, it therefore presents as quite moderate and reasonable – instead of trying to overturn the whole 'bedroom tax' (to which the government would just say no) it is simply asking for a change to the exemption rules to mitigate the negative social impact on County Durham.

Indeed, I would suggest that it is almost unarguable! Surely there can be few people who can find any grounds on which to insist that someone who has nowhere to move should not be given time whilst we find them somewhere to move – one has to be very cruel to say: 'no, these people are trapped and we’ll make them pay and pay’! I am therefore hoping that I will be able to persuade, not just the Labour Group, but the whole Council, of the justice of my suggestion.
Thus I am hoping that Councillors will be able to give unanimous support to the motion.

Secondly, an advantage of going through the Sustainable Communities Act is that, under the Act, the government cannot simply dismiss the idea out of hand – it has to give a reason for its decision. Moreover, if the government rejects the proposal (on whatever grounds) and Durham County Council does not agree with the grounds of rejection, we can ask a body called the ‘Selector’ to consider challenging the government’s decision. Since the Selector is the Local Government Association, moreover, I would hope that the Selector would support our case, which would therefore be resubmitted with all the authority of the LGA behind it.

Thirdly, if the County Council submits my suggestion under the 
Sustainable Communities Act  it will trap the government on the horns of a dilemma. If the government actually cares about releasing the housing (which it claims is the justification of their ‘bedroom tax’) it will be able to agree to my proposal, since its under-occupation measures are not actually releasing the housing whilst tenants are thus trapped in their houses. If the government denies the application, however, it will be seen to be intentionally implementing a measure which harms vulnerable people.

Finally, my proposal would move the onus of finding alternative accommodation from the tenants - many of whom are vulnerable people - onto the RPs … which would further reduce the psychological pressure the 'bedroom tax' places upon them. If we get the two-year moratorium, it will practically all-but-end the issue of the bedroom tax for many people in County Durham until we have a new government which - Labour or not – might be prepared to reconsider the whole issue. This would bring monetary and psychological relief to thousands of people across the County. The worst that can happen is that we are seen to be seeking reasonable legal relief for vulnerable people, whilst the government is demonstrated not to care. 

None of the above means that I accept the 'bedroom tax' or agree the 'bedroom tax'.  If there were a motion asking to abolish it I would vote for it.
All my motion asks is - given that there is here an opportunity to oppose a specific fault of the bedroom tax - that we might try it.  

Before we can submit a proposal…
The rules of the Sustainable Communities Act require that we undertake a consultation; we cannot just submit the suggestion. The consultation would involve local RPs, tenants and other interested parties. It may well be that that consultation will lead to changes in the suggestion – for example, the two-year moratorium might be considered too long or too short.
Thus the proposal is that the Council asks its officers to consult with interested parties and thereafter prepare a report to bring back to the Council, when councillors will have a chance to look at it again and, hopefully, submit it.

I am not aware of anyone else trying this approach. But it is very persuasive and – if it succeeds – it will relieve thousands of people in County Durham of a housing nightmare. Surely it is worth a try.

The text of my motion is, therefore:

Recent figures have proved that the under-occupation penalty (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’) is having severe consequences for many social housing tenants. Hardship is particularly unjust where affected tenants are unable to downsize because there is no suitable accommodation available.

The Sustainable Communities Act 2007 allows Councils (provided that interested parties have been consulted) to submit proposals to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government where the proposal would increase social inclusion.

Council therefore resolves to consult with interested parties and thereafter prepare a report to Council seeking authority to make a submission to the Secretary of State proposing that, for a period of two years, where suitable alternative accommodation is not available, tenants liable to the under-occupation penalty should be exempted, until suitable alternative accommodation can be found for them, in order to allow registered providers time to implement adjustments and strategies necessary to find/create alternative accommodation.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Bumbaclarts and Mr Pickles's Fantasies

How one simple word showed me that our government's social policies 
are inadequate and simplistic.

The Depth of the Problem
Someone I know through facebook, who works as a play therapist, recently commented that a child had called one of the teachers a ‘bumbaclart’.

You can look it up for yourself, but do not do so if you are easily shocked. Suffice it to say that I found the word so revolting that I cannot bring myself here even to hint at its meaning.

My estimation of the play therapist went through the roof. I had known they worked in a particularly difficult area, but the revelation that Primary School children there knew of such things made me realise what an amazing person they must be, to work day-after-day in such an environment, seeking to turn around children’s lives.

It used to be that deprivation was a matter of money. Today, deprivation is a toxic mix of poverty, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, and a sickening-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach sub-culture which has normalised what we used to call pornography.

The Inadequacy of the Solution
That one word made me realise that middle-class do-gooders like me actually know very little in our leafy suburbs of the depths of depravity with which some of our teachers grapple daily. And it made me suspect that Mr Gove, trapped in his Westminster bubble, is precious-poorly equipped to define the education system which is charged to rescue such children.

The other day, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles celebrated the government’s Troubled Families scheme whereby councils are paid £4,000 if they help the parents find work, get the children back into school and reduce the family’s impact on the local community. He claimed that, so far, 14,000 dysfunctional families had been ‘turned around’.

One has to wonder at the naivety of a minister who thinks that a ‘no-nonsense and common sense approach’ can so quickly and so easily ‘turn around’ the lives of small children familiar with bumbaclarts.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What’s Wrong With Labour?

Until the lumpenproles rise, Labour will struggle to mount a coherent strategy. 

Labour Loves Losing
As Luke Akehurst pointed out in his sensible ‘stay-calm-and-keep-canvassing’ article yesterday, the Labour Party is going through a silly season at the moment. Some of it is the Tory press, rejoicing at Labour’s discomfiture. But, to be fair, most of it is self-inflicted, as various Labour MPs try to use the press to float their personal peccadilloes.

Labour – the message comes out – is in a vacuum. The doom-mongers are having a field day. We are told that the Party’s lead at the polls has slumped and all-but disappeared. Its leadership (especially Ed Miliband), we are continually reminded, is effete, privileged, disconnected, vacillating and couldn’t punch a hole in a paper bag. Above all, it is claimed with some justification, nobody knows what Labour stands for and, when the national party does make a pronouncement, it is usually disastrously out-of-tune with its rank-and-file membership.

The image we are being sold is of a Party in crisis.

The Full Brunt of Tory Britain
What makes this all the more inexplicable is that all this is happening at the very time that Tory Britain is coming home to roost:

  • The economy is flatlining; rumours of growth are truly pathetic. 

Moreover, what growth there is has been achieved at an horrific cost. Big business, it appears, has deigned to continue … as long as it is given a much bigger share of the pot – this is a government which has sold out to corporate capitalism on a scale hitherto unthinkable:

  • We have bailed out the banks and you can just feel how the Tories can’t wait to hand them over at a discount (as they did Northern Rock) to their rich friends.
  • We are handing over huge £multi-billion chunks of the NHS and other government services to private contractors.
  • I know that the government has waxed lyrical about the moral wrong of tax-avoidance … but what have they actually done to end the culture of tax-avoidance and off-shore saving which is wrecking the economy? Very little.
  • Also, having allowed the privatised utilities (notably rail, water and electricity) to charge inflation-busting price rises to upkeep the infrastructure, we are now finding that they have instead been handing over the balance to their shareholders and – now it comes to updating the infrastructure – are holding out their hands saying that they can’t possibly afford to update the infrastructure and need government grants to do so. (And when they get those grants, we are finding that they are paying chunks of them back as donations to the Tory Party.)
  • The Tories’ solution to the housing shortage has been to build fewer houses than at any time since 1923, and instead to give people preferential loans to buy houses that are continuing (in every place but the north) to rise in price way beyond their value; they have, in effect, turned the UK housing market into a kind of Ponzi scheme, and – learning nothing from the 2008 crash – have chosen to build its ‘recovery’ on sub-prime borrowing. 

Meanwhile, the government has conducted a war against those on benefits which has reduced them simply to the point where they cannot afford to live. The disabled, the unemployed, social housing, council tax benefit recipients … all have been clobbered, some people by a number of cuts. Wonga have licked their lips and donated £593,000 to the Tory Party. At the same time, Councils have been hit to the point where many are wondering whether they will be able to provide even statutory services at all beyond 2018 – and the worst-hit areas have been the poorest areas.

Meanwhile also, the government have ruined the working poor. Working tax credits have been slashed. Real wages have fallen faster than anywhere in Europe apart from Greece and a couple of other places – despite the fact that our economy is nowhere near the crisis point of other European economies (remember the point I made above that business, it appears, has deigned to keep our economy limping along as long as we have given them everything they wanted?)
We are told that unemployment is falling, but the ‘jobs’ (that are replacing the real public-sector jobs that are being lost) are part-time, casual and ‘zero-hours’ jobs which threaten to reduce the employee to a rights-less wage slave.
Across the board, workers’ human rights are being eroded. Legal Aid has been curtailed and is being marketised, Health & Safety and Equality & Diversity rules abolished, Unfair Dismissal rights reduced. You can tell that the Tories are just desperate to leave the European Court of Human Rights, so that they can truly reduce Britain to a rights-free zone.

The Dearth of Opposition
What I find astonishing, given the breadth and depth of this bonfire of the poor, is the almost total lack of reaction or interest amongst the poor themselves.

I went on a bedroom tax demonstration a while ago; some 70 well-meaning middle class protesters were chanting in a jolly kind of way, but they could only find one person there prepared to speak who was actually affected by the bedroom tax. An NHS protest in Darlington garnered barely 60 protesters. Recently, the North-East People’s Assembly boasted that it got at its ‘demonstration’ … wait for it ... 230 people (hardly a mass-movement).
The world is falling out of the poor’s bottom and nobody, it appears, could give a shit.

To be fair, part of this is because of the success of Tory propaganda, which turns one section of the poor against the other.
There are many good, decent, working class people – both in and out of a job – who have bought in to the Tory work ethic, that decent people will take a job – any job, on any terms – to ‘work themselves out of poverty’ … even though it is quite clear that the number of jobs falls far short of the number of people needing them, and that many of the jobs on offer today are designed to keep you in poverty not lift you out of it. It has always been a Tory given that they keep the number of unemployed artificially high to keep the workforce subservient and in fear.

But, even so, where are the disenfranchised poor? Why are they not out on the streets, protesting, rioting and looting (e.g. as they were in the 1980s)? They are nowhere to be seen. Years of draconian cuts, and in County Durham the crime rate has gone down.

If we would believe the Daily Mail, these ‘scroungers’ are staying at home in luxury playing on their X-boxes and drinking themselves into insensibility. The truth – as far as one can ascertain – is that they have simply gone to ground. They are ‘getting by’ by any means they can, keeping their heads down, rolling with the punches, getting into debt, watching soaps and living on soup … and hoping it will all go away.

A HUGE Lumpenproletariat
Marx defined a group of people whom he called the ‘lumpenproletariat’ – those people at the bottom of society who were so poor and unaware that they were apolitical and beyond politicisation. He ignored them – they would be of no use in his revolution, which he entrusted instead to the ‘proletariat’ (the politicised working class).

What I would suggest today is that Britain has a HUGE lumpenproletariat, which stretches way beyond the benefits-classes, most-of-the-way through the working classes, and well into the substrate of the lower-middle classes. There are just millions upon millions of people who don’t know about politics, who don’t see it as being of any relevance to their lives and who, moreover, aggressively reject any attempt to persuade them otherwise. In the May elections, on the social-housing-estate in my ward most decimated by the Tory cuts, and despite an enthusiastic campaign to ‘get out the vote’, just 12 people out of 223 voters could be bothered to go to the polling station which was, literally, just across the road.

Before the 1980s, Labour’s (and the Unions’) pitch would have been easy. They would have pointed out the harm the Tories were doing to the working poor, and the working poor would have turned out to elect them by a landslide. In fact, Heath’s Tories would never have dared to enact any of the measures Cameron’s Tories are serving up for starters.

Perhaps Thatcher knocked the stuffing out of the Labour movement. Perhaps we have been convinced by a neoliberal media. Perhaps we have failed to develop a Socialism appropriate for the times.
Whatever, things are different today.

The Lumpenproletariat and Labour’s Problem
The Labour Party find itself trapped by the political inertia of this huge lumpenproletariat.

I don’t think that Byrne, Murphy and the other rightists in the Shadow Cabinet would for one moment want to mount a crusade against the government’s war-on-the-poor (they actually agree with much of the government’s principles, if not its programme). But, even if they did want to wage such a war, they are probably correct in judging that it would be politically suicide so to do.

Because – amongst Britain voters – amongst Britain’s politicised citizens – de facto mainly amongst the middle classes and the wealthy – the Tory programme is playing very well thank you.
Given the nature of the people-who-vote nowadays, if Labour were to come out with even a pale imitation of the 1983 manifesto, they would get slaughtered at the polls.

In fact, given that both Parties are moving away from their membership to their donors for funding (and that Miliband, by eschewing the Union levy, has tied the Labour Party to this as the only way to secure funding), the Labour leadership is probably correct in suspecting that they might not even get as far as the polls with such a manifesto; which rich donor is going to fund a campaign which promises to damage – even ever-so slightly – rich donors?

So the Labour Party leadership – apart from a few polemical statements about the welfare wreckage and falling living standards – continues in practice to move right in terms of its actual policies, as it chases the people who matter electorally … the people who actually VOTE.
And, hey, the membership might moan that they have nothing which makes the Party any different to the Tories but, in our brave apolitical world, members have to realise that they are a luxury the Party can actually do without. We do not fund the Party or elections to any significant degree. We upset voters with our controversially political statements. The leadership do not really need members to get elected, they need voters, and as long as we are voting Labour that’s all we are indispensible for.

So there we have it – Labour’s problem. And it is nothing to do with Ed Miliband’s ears, or weak leadership, or lack of policies, or any of the other things that have been floated in the press recently.

Labour's problem, therefore, is this:
Labour OUGHT to be opposing the Tory attack on the poor, and 
the government’s capitulation to corporate capitalism.

BUT – given that the people whom this would help don’t vote, but that it would hurt many of the people who do vote – such a policy will not win the next election.

This leaves the leadership scratting about trying to find policies which will play to the people who do vote, but which are sufficiently different to the Tories’ policies to make it worthwhile voting Labour … a virtually impossible task, given that most of those people blame Labour for the mess we are in anyway.

And the solution?
Ultimately, the solution is the repoliticisation of the lumpenproletariat. This, given an appropriate campaigning strategy and a second Tory term after 2015, might well be less impossible than you might think. Poverty, persecution and subjection, when all the quick-fix options have run out, will have an inevitable effect of concentrating the mind.

Beyond that, however, Labour members have little to look forward to apart from a long slog to try to persuade a PLP whose vested interests lie elsewhere to stand up for principles which have a whiff of ‘Labour’ about them, and of the need to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

But, as today figures on employment and wages deliver yet another body-blow to the North-East, one has to wonder whether people will ever wake up to what is happening.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The ‘Bedroom Tax’ – false dawns, and a loophole that works

Before we start, I hate the ‘Bedroom Tax’ … probably more than you. For me, its greatest evil is that it denies anybody on welfare benefits a ‘home’ – it means that all they can have is a temporary roof over their heads, until their circumstances change.
However, much as I hate it, I do have to caveat some of the daft suggestions people are making about the 'bedroom tax'.
And I do know a loophole which, to my amazement, people are making much less of than they might.

A couple of non-starters
Let’s start with an obvious statement: if the solution to the ‘Bedroom Tax’ were so easy, somebody cleverer than you and I would have found it already.
So when you read those internet blogs purporting to have found an easy answer which will undermine/overturn the ‘Bedroom Tax’, it’s probably a myth.

Let’s dismiss two of the least intelligent:

1. Why don’t the Councils refuse to collect it?
People who suggest that councils or Registered Providers (‘RPs’) could ‘refuse to implement’ the bedroom ‘tax’ misunderstand its nature. This is because it is not actually a ‘tax’ at all, and nobody ‘collects’ it. It is a reduction of housing benefit by the government to the tenant. The housing provider has no influence over it whatsoever.
It’s like me telling you to refuse to implement a parking fine I have incurred.

2. The Councils should refuse to evict tenants who fall into arrears
Refusing to evict tenants who fall into arrears as a result of the bedroom tax would be disastrous, not least financially to the Council/RPs.
But it would also be disastrous to the tenants. What would you propose to do with the arrears – just let them mount up (which would saddle these vulnerable people with a mountain of never-payable debt for the rest of their lives) ... or do you plan to write the arrears off (? – just for Council house tenants, or are you in effect suggesting that Councils should pay the bedroom tax of every social tenant by clearing the bedroom-tax-resultant arrears of everybody who rents from an RP – best of luck to the Council that suggests doing that out of the rates)?
This is a bonkers suggestion, utterly unworkable – the clue being that not a single council has done it.

Less unworkable suggestions which still need a caveat
Not all the ‘solutions’ out there are stupid as these (and some RPs are actually trying them) but – imho – they still have serious drawbacks.

3. Reclassification
Reclassification is less impossible, a couple of councils have tried it (Leeds and Nottingham) and there are rumours that some RPs intend to do so. Reclassification, however, also has its problems. Quite small numbers of houses are involved, and the houses which can be reclassified don't necessarily match the houses with 'bedroom tax' victims. 
Reclassification permanently devalues the value of the Council’s/PR’s housing stock. It also permanently reduces the rent take. One might have some sympathy if these were huge greedy tax-avoiding capitalist corporations, but they are not. RPs are usually relatively small non-profit organisations.
Reclassification *does* shift the damage of the ‘bedroom tax’ from the victims to the RPs, which is a noble and generous thing to do, but long-term it is not a wise move significantly to reduce the financial viability of our RPs – it will reduce their power to borrow and, thus, their power to provide new housing.

Also, the government has said it will penalise financially councils which have reclassified their social housing. It hasn’t done so yet, so we wait to see how damaging reclassification will turn out for these Councils, and the services they provide other than housing.

4. The ‘box room’ myth
Welwyn Hatfield Council, a Tory Council no less, has tried to get round the ‘bedroom tax’ by using an old law to reclassify some of its smaller bedrooms as box rooms. But it was established at the very start of the 'bedroom tax' saga that the law does not support the interpretation, so we wait to see whether that will work.

The problem with this particular idea (that a room under 50sq ft does not ‘count’ for bedroom tax) is that the law it cites simply does not say what it is claimed it says. You can read the actual law here:

You will see that this law simply does *not* define a bedroom - it defines overcrowding, and whether it is usable for the bedroom tax is moot. In fact, the DWP explicitly stated in its guidance (at that:

‘Bedroom size. We will not be defining what we mean by a bedroom in legislation and there is no definition of a minimum bedroom size set out in regulations.’
To be fair, this statement itself is challengeable at law, but it is all very uncertain – on some of the legal complexities regarding this, try here:

A loophole which works
All of which makes it surprising that people are making very little of an allowed loophole which *does* work.

Because, in March 2013, following a Supreme Court decision in (and therefore back-dated to) May 2012, the DWP announced that:
‘local authorities should allow an extra bedroom for children who are unable to share because of their severe disabilities.’
Under ‘bedroom tax’ rules, all children under 10, and two children of the same sex under 16, are expected to share a bedroom … UNLESS:
in the case of ‘a severely disabled child … they would seriously disrupt the sleep of another child at night if they were to share a bedroom’. 
Anyone, therefore, who has found themselves hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ because children who previously had their own bedrooms are now officially classified as ‘expected-to-be-sharing’ – and where one of those children is classified in any way as ‘special needs’ – should go to their doctor and school SENCO, getting from them a statement that the nature of that special need means that they will ‘seriously disrupt the sleep of another child at night if they were to share a bedroom’. Then take that to your RP and ask them to organise your exemption from the ‘bedroom tax’ on those grounds. 

As a former SENCO, it is my experience that most children at school have *some* kind of special need, and that many children who might be regarded as SN are not on the school register because the parents have not flagged up with the school the problems they are facing. Any child with ADHD, ADD, autism, Asperger’s, emotional fragility, violent outbursts, a history of abuse or a number of other relevant special needs (e.g. sleeplessness, sleepwalking, epilepsy etc.) should surely qualify, and most professionals will be prepared to comment on the severity of the problem after a little explanation and clarification by the parents. Moreover, it will be a brave (and heartless) RP which refuses to process such a case in the face of letters from the school and the doctor … in short, *it’s worth a try*.

Watch this space
Thus, apart from possibly some flexibility around the government-allowed exemption on the grounds of a child’s disability, there *is* no ‘easy fix’ to the bedroom tax, and I wish campaigners would stop attacking councils and councillors because they cannot wave a magic wand at it.

I am currently putting the finishing touches to my own ‘cunning plan’ to ameliorate the ‘bedroom tax’, which I hope to be able to put before Durham County Council in September … and I shall update this blog with the details if and when it happens.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Goodbye Home - Hello Ghetto

The Tories continue to churn out legislation designed to destroy the Welfare State.  It’s almost as if – in case they lose the next election – they are determined to leave it wrecked beyond salvage.

And – as I have said before – they are attacking on every front, with such a barrage of cuts and changes that, as fast as you turn your attention on one thing and start to oppose it, they are attacking something else behind your back.

This morning, news came out of yet another assault on Britain’s Welfare State, when Eric Pickles, Secretary of State at the DCLG announced that social housing tenants who earn more than £60,000 are to be forced to pay market rent (rather than the 80% ‘affordable’ rent they pay at the moment). 

Another Nasty Tory Policy
At first this seems just another typically nasty and divisive piece of Tory bile.

We know now how the Tories work:

  • First, they identify a small group of the population – in this case, high-earning social housing tenants.
  • Next, they wage a propaganda war against them, suggesting to the rest of the population that this group is somehow stealing from them, and needs to be penalised for the benefit of the majority – the ‘we-cannot-afford-it’ argument is the usual justification.
  • Then they float/consult on a suggested penalty for these ‘scroungers’ and – when the initial outrage has died down a bit – move in and hammer them. 

So it comes as little surprise to find that this is what has happened to high-earning social tenants:

Plans set out by the Communities and Local Government department last week state the government will enshrine in law that the onus is on tenants who earn above the threshold to reveal their earnings ‘to ensure they are making a fairer contribution’.  
Of the very few people beyond those-directly-affected who even know what is happening, many will read the rhetoric and actually agree.  Why should people who could afford to buy their own house ‘take up’ valuable ‘social’ housing?  And why shouldn’t they pay market rent – the extra money can be used to build more much-needed social houses.

The Flawed Initiative
But think about it – begin to look at it for what it is, a Tory initiative, and look for the social damage, and for the hidden agenda (because there always is one).

High-waged people living in rented, social housing have a reason to do so.   It is a major financial decision to choose to pay rent all your life for a house you will never own.  Perhaps their job is not secure, or needs them to move about the country.  Perhaps they have family living nearby for whom they need to care. This is yet another Tory regulation, of which the social consequences have been inadequately forethought.

More to the point, the reaction of many people faced with a sudden 25% hike in their rents will probably be to move.   Firstly, this is likely to undermine, not strengthen, the Registered Housing Providers who are already (because of the ‘bedroom tax’) finding it difficult to let larger houses.  More to the point, moreover, when people make the inevitable decision, and decide to put their money into a mortgage rather than rent, it will increase demand for private houses and lead to a rise in house prices.  Given that this is also the inevitable outcome of the government’s help-to-buy scheme, we can fairly much assume that this was the government’s intention all along ... a housing bubble.

The Death of the Welfare State
But what I want to concentrate upon is not the flawed practicalities of the scheme, but upon its flawed principles.

Because – when you charge high-earning tenants full rent – you are making a mighty statement about social housing.

When Newton Aycliffe was built after the war as the embodiment of the Welfare State, no private housing was allowed at all.   It was ALL Council Housing, and everybody was expected to live in it – the manager next to the mechanic, as they explained at the time.  We had ‘all been in it together’ during the war, and we were going to ‘all be in it together’ as we built post-war Britain.

When I first came to Newton Aycliffe, therefore, as a young Oxford graduate, I automatically went into a Council flat.  There was no stigma attached, no idea of my Council house being in any way ‘inferior’ or accommodation for the inadequate; even then, almost all the housing in Newton Aycliffe was Council Housing (and very nice it was too).

Of course, Thatcherite Britain long-since ditched such Socialist ideas – private housing estates burgeoned all over Great Aycliffe, and ‘Council’ housing became ‘Social’ housing, with all the baggage that the word entails.
And now, this new measure puts the final nail in the coffin.

‘Social’ housing is no longer to be an option for people able to support themselves – they should be in private rented accommodation, or should be ‘aspiring’ to own their own property.
No. ‘Social’ housing is for the poor. For those on benefits. For those unable to look after themselves. For the 'failures of society', and those without acceptable ‘aspirations’. 

‘Social’ housing is to be ghettoised … it is to become the British equivalent of the South African townships.

Housing as a Means-tested Benefit
And there is a second, even darker, connotation to this restriction of social housing to poor people, because it amounts, essentially, to the means-testing of housing.

It thus subtly reduces the status of the social tenant – even if they are paying the full 80% rent – to ‘scrounger’.
Theirs is not an economic contract, paying an agreed rent for the house provided, as a full and equal citizen.
No.  Social house tenants are getting a means-tested cheap deal.

This is not a case of getting housing benefit to pay your rent if you need welfare benefit.  The social house itself has become a welfare benefit.

This latest DCLG announcement, therefore, is designed to the same end as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and other new DCLG rules that see social housing, not as a ‘home’, but merely as a temporary, revolving-door accommodation, into which you move because you cannot do otherwise financially, but out of which you are expected to move when your circumstances change. 

It is the death of the Beveridge vision for housing.

After the second world war, politicians such as Attlee, Bevan and Beveridge adopted a socialist model of Council Housing to try to solve Britain’s severe housing shortage.  Personally, I cannot see why what they did then would not work again now.

But, looking at what this Tory crowd are doing to our housing, I cannot help but think that they would feel that fighting the war had been a wasted effort.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

How to solve the problem of our town centres … in one word.

Today, I will tell you how to reinvigorate the town centre ... and it isn't by remodelling the pedestrian zone. 

The out-of-town decision
Wednesday was my wife’s birthday, so on Tuesday – old romantic that I am – I decided to go and buy her a present.  I knew what I wanted, and knew where I could get it.

I’m at County Hall.  It’s lunchtime.  I have an hour free, and I decide to pop out and get the gift. 

So where to go?

Durham is nearer.  But oh the hassle of going there.   To drive right into the centre involves a Congestion Charge.   There is often a queue into the multi-storey car park, and I hate those places anyway.  Meanwhile, parking anywhere in Durham costs; the nearest place I can think of where I could park free and walk is County Hall.

What about the park-and-ride? Well that costs too – £2 whether you use the bus or not – and involves all the inconvenience of waiting for a bus, and then the discomfort of a bus ride, and then having to walk to the shops from the stop.

So I went to the Arnison, out-of-town shopping centre.   It was little further away than Durham, but I could drive there, park up, and get out right next to the shop I wanted to go to.
Which I did, and a very nice present I bought too!

The Parking Problem with Town Centres
So yes.  It’s lazy, and ecologically unsound, and it’s destroying our town shopping centres … but we live in the age of the car.  And the out-of-town shopping centre, with its ease of access and free, convenient parking, wins every time.

If you think about it, it’s the same in Newton Aycliffe.  Cobbler’s Hall seems to be thriving – it always seems full of shoppers.  Tesco’s gets 40,000 visitors a month.  But if you go to the town centre, you rattle around like a couple of beans in a can.

And the difference?  Parking in front of the shops.

There is plenty of parking in Aycliffe, and it’s free … but you have to park and walk.
And in this automobile age, it’s too much.
Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is – it’s a faff, and it turns a two-minute diversion into a 20-minute epic.

It’s a no-brainer, actually, when you think about it.  About fifty years ago we decided that we did not want cars in our town centres, and we started taking measures to exclude them.  What we did not realise was that, when we drove the cars out of our town centres, we were also driving out the people who drove in them.

And if we want to get those people back, we have to allow back the cars they travel in.

The Solution

Beveridge Way, Newton Aycliffe – in an era when we were not trying to drive the car out of our town centres.

Forget Mary Portas – it was a waste of ink.

What our town centres need to organise is some way to replicate the park-and-shop attraction of the out-of-town shopping centres.

I can see that in many old town centres this will be difficult, but in Newton Aycliffe it could be easy.

If I owned the town centre I would level the shops on the west side from the Halifax to Woolworths, relocate the lessees, and turn that whole area from Greenwell Road to the front of Boots into a huge free car-park.

Let the cars ‘get at’ the shops, easily, and the shoppers will arrive with them.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Are the Tories 'Evil'?

Recently, in response to a Sunny Hundal article, both Mark Ferguson of LabourList and Owen Jones in the Independent have come out publicly to say that “the Tories aren’t actually evil”.

Yes they are dismantling the Welfare State.  Yes they are destroying the NHS.  Yes they are abolishing Legal Aid.  Yes they are wrecking the economy of the North East.  All this acknowledged, but all that – it is suggested – does not make them ‘evil’.

An Era of Cuts
Of course, it is a moot debating point – both Ferguson and Jones argue that all this does not make the Tories evil in the religious sense of the word: is
 it fair to label Mr and Mrs Deluded of Surrey ‘evil’ in a Satanic way? 

But if that is all it is to Messrs 
Ferguson and Jones - a debating point - then it shows where they are coming from.

Both of them are writers who are making their money and their status from commenting upon the political situation.  They have both become well-known, and are comfortably well-off.  

And they clearly regard the whole show as a political game – a point-scoring debate.

How do I know?  Because neither of them think the Tories ‘evil’.

Yes they can observe the Tories’ actions and denounce them. 

“Cruel? Certainly. Unforgivable? Beyond doubt,” comments Owen Jones.

But these are the observations of the dispassionate observer, not the outcry of the victims. Neither Mr Ferguson nor Mr Jones are actually suffering on account of the Tories’ policies … in fact they doing rather well out of them.

Evil as a relative, rather than an Absolute, Concept
To be honest with you, the Tories’ policies have affected my personal lifestyle only marginally. But, here in the north-east, they are devastating my community, and the lives of many of the poorest and most vulnerable local people.

What Ferguson and Owens need to appreciate is that the destruction of the Welfare State is merely objectively ‘cruel’ and ‘unforgiveable’ … until you find yourself trapped by the bedroom tax, or unable to get a crisis loan to visit your son in hospital.
It is when the issues become subjective that you start to declare the Tories ‘evil’.
Much the same can be said about the NHS, legal aid and the economy.
Try asking one of those council workers who have lost their job, or who have had their pay frozen year upon year, whether they think Tories are ‘evil’.

The abuse-term ‘evil’ is much easier to discuss dispassionately when you are wrapped into the Westminster bubble, than when you rely on the local foodbank to feed your children, knowing that you will not be allowed to make another visit for three months.

The vitriol of ‘evil’ comes then, I would suggest, much more easily to the lips.

We Need More Nye Bevans
Aneurin Bevan once got into trouble for describing the Tories as ‘lower than vermin’.
I often wonder how he would get on in today’s anodyne, oh-so-polite-and-reasonable triangulating Labour Party.

But let’s not forget that the anger and hatred that fuelled Bevan was the motivation which wrenched a Britain ruined by the War out of the Hungry Thirties and into the Welfare State.

To my mind, we need more Nye Bevans.
Are you, as I, not amazed that there is so little anger against what the Tories are doing, so little outcry - so little response, not least from the poor people affected, but also from the caring middle classes?

I suspect it is indeed because we have not yet, as a society, realised that what the Tories are doing is evil, and thus we have not come to realise - as Britain did in 1945 and 1997 - that we are morally obliged to cast them out.

And just one more point, about Mr and Mrs Deluded of Surrey.

Nye Bevan had lived through the war, and he knew that to sit back and allow evil is in effect to condone it.