When… Food Bank continues to help locals in need

Our story about the Hunger crisis in Stoke-on-Trent is one of the most viewed on Pits n Pots since the site was relaunched and the print edition was sent out.

We will be doing a follow up article on this over the next week, as well as the food bank featured in our original article there is also the When… food bank operated by our friends at  Breathe City Church. Continue reading

Double dip and Oatcakes

The news that Britain has slipped back into a recession should not be surprising. The economy experienced a 0.2 % fall following the decline in the figure of 0.3% in previous quarter which now puts the economy technically into a double dip recession- the first time since 1975. I would argue that the local economy has probably never recovered from the recession 4 years ago. As a guess the North Staffs economy has shrunken by about 8-10% since 2008. The signs of a turn down are everywhere most noticeably in the local jobs market. If we take the Sentinel as a guide the Wednesday section has been advertising around 300 jobs over recent weeks.

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The hunger crisis in Stoke-on-Trent

Churches in Stoke-on-Trent are opening a food bank after discovering that the city has the third highest child poverty rate in the West Midlands.

Ron Willoughby, pastor of Wesley Hall Methodist Church, who are helping to run the food bank said

Living below the poverty line isn’t about not having the latest gadgets or Nintendo DS. It’s about going to bed cold and hungry and waking up cold and hungry. And we want to do something to stop children having to live like that in Stoke-on-Trent.

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The Last Post or if Stoke was a person would we be buying a one way ticket to a Swiss Clinic?

During the 70s when I was studying Politics and History at York I read a book which in hindsight made a tremendous impact on me- Brightest and Best an account of the Johnson administration and the Vietnam War. What is interesting about the book is the way in which very intelligent people can be fooled and can believe in what they want to believe especially when statistics are concerned.

Towards the end of the book there is an exchange between the Special adviser Walt Rostow a very distinguished historian and Daniel Ellsberg the author of the Pentagon Papers. Rostow is studying data about bombing figures on North Vietnam and is enthusiastically proclaiming that the Americans are winning the war. Ellsberg tries to inject an element of reality saying that this is not the case.

The same principle of deluding and believing that your efforts are succeeding fools people today. For instance and here is a question to direct at people who are in charge whether they are Councillors or senior officers of the City Council. Do you seriously think that you are winning the war now?

And the same principle equally applies to myself.

I have written since last November something like 130-140 blogs on the future of the area especially my home town Stoke on Trent. I have touched on many of the key issues that face the local community, jobs, regeneration, environmental concerns, health, poverty, etc. I have come up with many ideas, which I foolishly believed might aid debate.

I think I can safely say that despite all my musings, all my ideas which I admit some of which are derivative from other ideas that are happening around the country and in other parts of the world. I can safely say that my ideas have had no influence and to quote the Flemish proverb I have been pissing at the Moon these last 12 months.

A good example can be drawn from the green energy scheme the so-called “pioneering” project that the City Council have made with Eo-n. From what I understand the project just hands this potentially important element of economic regeneration over to a big company. All the profits will go to Eo-n; there is some vague promise that local jobs will be created- we will see. But why not go down the Birmingham path, for instance, where income generated from the feed in tariff will be used to self finance a scheme that will help fight fuel poverty, generate local jobs and assist local suppliers. Birmingham is even considering a local PV cell manufacturer cutting out the need to import cells from China.

But in this and seemingly in every major policy decision the Council flunked it as they flunked the regeneration agenda by to close an association with one company St Modwen. The Council has a tendency of putting all its egg’s in one basket. Is it surprising that some of the eggs are off?

Last September the Sentinel accurately reflected on a principle aim of the regeneration agenda. “At the end of June 2009, 29,115 adults in the City were claiming some form of unemployment benefit, including incapacity benefit. The figure is equivalent to 19.5 per cent of the city’s workforce, or one in five people.

That is far higher than the regional average for April of 13 per cent, and the national average rate of just 12 per cent

The total is now higher than the figure for 2006/07, when City Council and North Staffs Regeneration Partnership (NSRP) began trying to tackle the city’s unemployment problems.

Since then, the unemployment rate was supposed to be cut from 19.2 per cent to 16.8 per cent at the end of the current financial year”.

No one can claim although people try to, that the City is being overlooked. Over the year as I have reported before this area and Stoke in particular has received a great deal of State aid of which the Pathfinder/Renew project is the most recent and potentially the best funded. And yet the whole scheme has been terribly mishandled. I am scratching my head to try to understand how the regeneration agency can return on two separate occasions millions of £s because they have no projects on which to spend the money. And now we hear that staff in the regeneration department have been suspended and some one else has been questioned by the Police.

It is terribly sad for the many good, hard working people who work in the City Council to have to bat away a constant drip of scandal and incompetence that seems to beset the City Council. The history of the Council over the last 20 years is one of PR disaster after disaster and the political landscape is littered with burning hulks of Worldgate, the Cultural Quarter, contractual scandals and the Regeneration fiasco spring to mind.

I suppose the tipping point for me was the Worker’s Educational Association meeting in Cobridge last week when the senior officer made the faux pas about the manufacturing/engineering tradition in the City. He said that there was no tradition. I came away concluding is this what people think?

It might be comfortable for people in well paid jobs to cling to the myth that the people of the area are all thick, lazy and devoid of any creativity. After all you have to justify what you are doing to your commissioners. The figure of literacy levels for example seems to be a figure peculiarly prone to inflation. I have sat in meetings and heard figures such as 24%, 30% and 33% banded around and I have mentioned the officer of the REC making the comment that they “are all thick you know”.

It might suit people to believe this and that the locals are beyond redemption rather than thinking on them as a resource. Now I know Kenneth and others like Martin Tideswell make positive comments about doing things for ourselves but will you be allowed to? My experience when I have directed many ideas to Councillor’s and Officers of the Council is not a happy one. In my view it is very difficult to get ideas on an agenda of which my green ideas are a very good example.

I don’t want to be gloomy, but I think that the curtain has to be drawn on the City as an entity. I feel that the City Council missed a trick in the 90s when the government were looking for leadership from the Chief Executive of the time Brian Smith dithered on the future configuration of the area. It was a decision he avoided; however if you wish, ironically, for the area to survive then the establishment of a North Staffs Unitary Authority given what has gone on has to move up the agenda.

The concept of a unitary authority has to be linked with another idea and that is devolved power to local communities because I am increasingly of the opinion that therein lies the opportunity of really unlocking the potential that I know exists in the area.

I intend that this is my last post. I feel I have nothing more to add to the debate on the future of the area. I still intend to comment, but I have written extensively on the area and I feel that the creative seam is worked out.

17 musings on a project that delivers cheap energy, jobs, social cohesion and apple pie for Stoke residents

1. Stoke has a problem with areas suffering from poverty, high levels of deprivation and unemployment. A recent report in a local paper indicated that over 1 in 5 of local residents are on benefits.

2. Climate Change is one of the most important policy questions driving government action. All political parties are signed up to the agenda and targets to reduce carbon emissions.

3. Fuel poverty is a major issue in the area. National data indicates that over 25,000 people die each year from cold related illness a far higher proportion than other northern countries such as Canada or Norway. A national figure of 25,000 extrapolated down means that around 180-220 people day from cold related illness in the City each year.

4. The drive to create jobs from opportunities offered by this agenda is a growing movement in this country and elsewhere supported by a coalition of interests.

5. One area where a great deal of energy could be saved is adequately insulating homes and commercial practices. It has been calculated that something like 25% of energy is lost this way. A number of projects around the world such as Wisconsin Energy Efficiency is designed to stimulate a large scale building retrofit programme and create green skills training opportunity and jobs for local people.

6. Another community based project in South London is aiming to get people to produce and use energy sustainable, whatever their income.

7. There is an interest in one area of Stoke in the Burslem and Middleport area how local residents might become more involved in a concept that might provide local jobs and cut fuel bills for local people as well as fighting climate change.

8. The City Council is also committed to this agenda and that there is evidence that other communities would benefit from an approach that meets some of the challenges around poverty and worklessness outlined above. However I think that there ought to be a consciousness raising event or events to raise potential for this throughout the City

9. The City also has been successful in obtaining funding for a national retrofitting centre based at a former potbank where 400 local people will receive training in the areas of work outlined above.

10. There is also the opportunity to create energy through a variety of sources. One possibility is the approach taken by Birmingham by the installation of photovoltaic solar panels, insulation and modern fuel-efficient boilers in the city. The Council offers local residents and businesses grants and low cost loans to install insulation and panels and in return the Council collects the feed in tariff. The money raised is spent on more panels making the scheme self funding.

11. Another scheme in New Mills in Derbyshire harnesses the power of the River Goyt to turn a generator sunk in the riverbed to generate energy, which is used to power local homes and businesses. Extra energy generated is fed into the national grid and a dividend paid to local residents who buy into the project through a share issue scheme.

12. There is also potential for using the derelict land in the City to grow biomass crops. In a brief conversation with Prof John Dover at a recent regeneration lecture he indicated that there was land available in the City that a pioneer biomass-growing scheme could work depending on the chain of supply. However if biomass crops could be used to generate power locally this further could play a role in the creation of local jobs that fitted this agenda.

13. The national agenda of the new government also fits in with this agenda. This suggestion fits into the Big Society agenda and the localism of both Conservative and Liberal Democrats philosophies. There is also interest in the creation of a Green Investment Bank details will emerge later in the year.

14. However I am interested in the possibility of developing a few community benefiting structures such as a Community Interest Company (CIC) These are limited by shares or guarantee and are set up to benefit the local community. A principle of the CIC is an asset lock, which ensures that the assets remain in the community

15. Alternative as in the New Mills scheme which is funded by an Industrial Provident Scheme. For some projects the IPS has become the vehicle of choice. There is over 8,000 IPS in the country with over 10,000,000 members. The growing use of in sustainable energy developments has demonstrated the potential for raising significant capital for the community and it can offer significant return. An IPS can be run as a co-operative for the benefit of its community with profits ploughed back into the community. IPS can issue community share at a low cost by structuring them to avoid red tape of a full public prospectus. Giving locals a stake in the organisations such as New Mills can drive the project forward increase support for planning organisation lead to a feeling of community empowerment and raise awareness of the importance of renewable energy in addition to generating power and jobs.

16. There is some work to be done here

17. And call the organisation Potteries Power

And a possible job description to pull this together

Potteries Power aims to provide local solutions to fuel poverty and climate change, including energy audits, support and advice as well as enabling increased uptake of the various schemes currently on offer such as cavity and loft insulation, draught proofing, new double glazing, heating controls and replacement boiler systems and PV systems

The Energy Co-ordinator will develop and lead this carbon and energy saving project, organising events, home visits and giving professional energy advice. You will also be responsible for recruiting, managing, and supporting up to 10 part time Energy Champions who will help to deliver this project within their own local areas.

It is envisaged that the Energy Champions will be local people who have good community links, an interest in energy and carbon saving, and a passion for making a difference, but may not have any specific knowledge or experience in energy saving. After suitable training, these Champions will be the “Ëœon the ground’ contact for their local communities, and will be carrying out initial surveys, providing advice and motivating their communities.

Key duties and responsibilities

1 Develop and Lead the Potteries Power team
ï‚· Recruit, support and promote local energy champions in communities and provide and promote training for groups of volunteers.
ï‚· The Coordinator will start a series of public awareness meetings, using these to recruit 10 part time community based Energy Champions.
ï‚· The local Energy Champions will be trained by the Energy Co – ordinator, but each will also be trained to City and Guilds 6176 Energy Awareness.
ï‚·
2 Publicity and Marketing
ï‚· Deliver presentations, work – shops and lectures on energy issues to householders, businesses and other interested parties.
ï‚· Run regular local energy awareness meetings in community halls.
ï‚· Develop and maintain the potteries power website in conjunction with a specialist.
ï‚· Further develop the Potteries Power branding and detailed publicity material.
ï‚· Publicise and promote the project and related energy efficiency / renewable energy projects using the local media.
ï‚· Help to establish and support local information points and maintain an overview of the information network.

3 Work with the Community Energy Network to:
ï‚· Direct clients to services.
ï‚· Collate information on all householder grant funding available.
ï‚· Liase with local / national installers (insulation, glazing, heating controls, plumbing etc).
ï‚· Start Home Energy Checks.
Manage referrals and feedback data.
ï‚· Prepare best practice case studies and disseminate to households, organisations and businesses.
4 Home Energy Checks, Advice and Implementation
ï‚· Plan implementation of house by house visits.
ï‚· Select and acquire demonstration equipment (insulation samples, boiler controls etc.)
ï‚· Select and acquire smart meters.
ï‚· Conduct energy audits for houses / businesses / community buildings, where required.
ï‚· Provide follow – up information, support and advice for contacts made initially by local energy volunteers (households, community groups and small businesses) where required.
ï‚· Liase with Stoke Council to ensure householders (particularly those in fuel poverty) are claiming all their benefit entitlements.
ï‚· Distribution and training in use of smart meters.

5 Assist householders to liase with tradesmen for the installation of energy saving measures locally identified such as:
ï‚· Cavity wall and loft insulation.
ï‚· Draught proofing of windows and doors.
ï‚· Double or secondary glazing.
ï‚· Reflective film behind radiators on outside walls.
ï‚· Set up existing heating controls for optimum comfort conditions and minimum energy use.
ï‚· Upgrading heating controls – especially the retrofit installation of weather compensating ” optimum start ” 7 day heating programmer and thermostats. (especially where additional funding is available)
ï‚· Where appropriate, work with the on specification of renewable systems such as wood stoves, biomass boilers, solar thermal & PV systems.

6 Develop and maintain local contacts
ï‚· Establish and maintain a database of advice contacts and energy saving activities in the local area
ï‚· Develop connections with energy awareness campaigns, their fuel poverty action , and other organisations in such as VAST
ï‚· Identify and contact all similar local initiatives within and adjacent to the local area and liase with them as appropriate.

7 Administration
ï‚· Create and maintain a database of properties surveyed, action taken and carbon savings achieved.
ï‚· Produce progress reports for the management group, Climate Challenge Fund and project partners.
ï‚· Keep financial records of the project, and claim grant money
ï‚· Administrative tasks relevant to the post
ï‚· Carry out relevant tasks as requested by the management group
ï‚· Build on, and maintain, lists of installers and develop contacts

Thomas Paine, Leek bailiff’s, Mr Reid and a smorgasbord.

Thomas Paine has always been a great hero of mine and before anyone asks what is the relevance of this to the 21st century that I invoke the shade of an 18th century figure bear with me

The son of a Norfolk Quaker Paine tried his hand as a shop keeper, stay maker, teacher, custom officer, and labour organiser before coming to America in 1774. The experience of living in an aristocratic Britain led him to despise everything that system stood for. He used the power of language to convince early Americans that they had it their power to turn the world upside down.

Through his pamphlets Common Sense and the Crisis papers””and through such words as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” and “These are the times that try men’s souls”””Paine not only emboldened his fellow citizens-to-be to turn their rebellion into a war for independence, he also defined the new nation in a democratically expansive way and articulated an American identity charged with the greatest purpose and promise.

America and its people turned Paine into an inveterate champion of liberty, equality and democracy and after the Revolution he went on to apply his pen to struggles in Europe. In Rights of Man, he defended the French Revolution of 1789 against conservative attack, called for democratic change in Britain and outlined a series of public initiatives to address the inequalities that made life oppressive for working people. In The Age of Reason, he criticised the power and influence of conservative churches and clerics. And in Agrarian Justice, he proposed taxing the propertied rich to provide grants to young people and pensions to the old.

Thomas Paine was a heroic figure for many of the working class movements in the 18th and 19th century and who could not be thrilled by language that addressed the lot of the poor and the powerless in such a vivid way

” The present state of civilisation is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be and a revolution should be made of it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye is like dead and living bodies chained together”

Or

“The people’s enemies take care to represent government as a thing made up of mysteries, which only themselves understand, and they hid from the understanding of the nation, the only thing that was beneficial to know namely that government is a national association acting on the principles of society”

Animated by Thomas Paine, we have organised unions and pressed for workers’ rights; demanded the abolition of slavery; campaigned for women’s equality; confronted the power of Big Business, opposed Fascist and Communist tyrannies; fought for racial equality; and challenged government’s policies, domestic and foreign, when we have found them wrongheaded and oppressive. Admittedly, we have suffered defeats, committed mistakes and endured tragedies. But we have achieved great victories and far more often than not, as Paine himself fully expected, we have transformed the world for the better.

But there are still things in British society that Paine would have recognised as wrong and corrupt and this is where the 21st century and North Staffordshire comes in.

I have just become a member of the Peak and Potteries Pro Democracy Group based in Leek but working on the understanding that in Britain we have a democratic deficit. The electoral system is deeply flawed; there has been a power shift from local to national government. The power and influence of quangos of people’s lives is a cause of concern. The EU requires more democratic structures and controls and the power of corporations runs unchecked.

Thomas Paine would have recognised the problem. We need a radical change; a revolution for as Paine himself remarked political systems are for the living and not made and sustained for the dead.

During discussions at that inaugural meeting one of the participants asked about the state of democracy in Leek. I guess that the situation in Leek is no better or worse than other towns in the area, but the question did get me thinking and from my own insight as a Councillor of 8 years I would diagnose a very unwell patient.

I will give a couple of illustrations to prove my point

In the autumn of 2007 there was some concern expressed in Leek by the excessive use of bailiffs and the instant recourse to the law should there be a delay in the payment in Council Tax. The newspaper was full of stories of upright local citizens being summoned because they choose to pay their tax on a different day than the local Council required. A meeting was organised where a local magistrate and the independent Councillor Steve Povey were present and about 100 rather annoyed people attended.

I had done a little research and discovered that the bailiff’s that the Council used had a special relationship with SMDC and that each was a very complimentary thing about the other on websites.

The meeting was well trailed in the media, but no Councillor from the ruling group attended to hear the views of the people in a packed hall or explain their actions.

It was a similar result when 120 or so people attended a meeting last February over the supermarket applications for Leek. Again only 3 or 4 Councillors attended the meeting yet the meeting was a highly productive one. There were views expressed on the possibilities of developing the town’s tourism potential but again no senior Councillor or officer was present.

I similarly hear a view that increasing number of decisions are made on the closed agenda in the local Council.

My second example concerns the then Home Secretary John Reid who came to Leek in the summer of 2006 following a horrible murder of a family in Cheddleton and a street killing in the market square. There was a concern that there was a violent crime spree in Leek. It was not an open meeting and people were invited to the meeting with the Home Secretary. I was later told that questions were planted in the audience and that the meeting was vigorously chaired by a Labour Party stalwart who did not allow open questioning. I was not present because I was not invited. But I would not be surprised by the planted question because I saw them used when Tony Blair came to Kidsgrove in April 1997.

Curiously enough some months later I came across a report in a Leek paper of a visit made by another Home Secretary and a Scot as well, David Maxwell Fyfe in April 1952. The meeting, unlike the Reid meeting, was open and over 600 people packed into the old Town Hall. The questioning was open as well because the whole meeting and questions were reported verbatim in the paper.

(Perhaps that is another indicator of the reduction in scrutiny the demise of local government reporting in the press).

I have to say that in the intervening 50 years the command and control operated by the major political parties has damaged scrutiny and open questioning.

And the smorgasbord?

This is a very recent example and rather aptly describes the Paine criticism of the mystery of words. I went to a Staffs Moorlands Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) organised meeting as there was a request for people who were volunteers to attend a meeting where the involvement of volunteers was required to help in the planning and delivery of local services.

The meeting summed up what I essentially think is badly wrong with the structures and accountability of public service in Leek. If I were a willing volunteer who had intrigued by the notice and wanted to help I would have been badly put off by that CVS meeting.

Firstly there were very few volunteers at the meeting. I think that there were under 10, I was there as a volunteer representing the local Transition Town Group. But most people around the table were in paid posts either in the voluntary sector or the local council or health services. There were few people sitting there who were not being paid for their involvement.

Nothing was really explained I guess that as most of the people in the room knew each other it was judged that there was no need for explanation or background papers. Well, it was all very cosy and people just knew

But worse was the language. LSP. PPP, Compacts, etc used here which was, to use Thomas Paine’s phrase an exercise in puzzlement “the people’s enemies take care to represent government as a thing made up of mysteries, which only themselves understand”,

As I said at the time a veritable smorgasbord of initials and strange words.

There was no explanations a list of names were read our and approved of the great and the good who could represent the people of Leek on these various boards and that really was that.

A view from the tills

Working at a till at a checkout gives you a unique perspective on British society. For one thing most people use supermarkets and over a 4-hour period it is likely that you will see approaching 200 people. Some will be well off and the people on limited incomes will arrive late with the hope of getting some late bargains. Over the course of a day you will see many people engaging in consumerism.

I was working at the supermarket the other day and had occasion to look up. There was a line of several people looking very grim. On my facebook page I likened it to an illustration by Daumier from the 1820s of a line of prisoners being taken away in an execution cart to hang at Tyburn.

They all looked hollowed eyed.

People are not happy and it is a theme I have touched on before. There is something wrong in the land.

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For many years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest and possessions: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective worth. It is how we identify ourselves. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. I shop therefore I am.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not central, I believe, to the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates only from the last 30 years: the obsession with wealth and the need to own, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless economic growth.

We cannot go on living like this. David Cameron also thinks like although I suspect that the prognosis and the solution will be radically different. The crash of 2008 was a warning that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it falls prey to its own excesses and like Cronos ends by devouring its own children.

If it is to be taken seriously again, progressives must find their voice, but it cannot be again taken in by New Labour as wedded to the false orthodoxy as the Conservatives. There is much to rage about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; inequity of class; exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege narrowing the arteries of democracy. There are now more former public schoolboys in the cabinet at any time since the 1950s. But it will no longer suffice to identify the shortcomings of “the system” and then retreat indifferent to the outcome. The irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding of decades past did not serve the left well. It must learn to engage with itself and with others. It should be a historic opportunity.

We have entered an age of neurosis””economic insecurity, physical insecurity, climate insecurity, political insecurity. The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the catastrophe that followed. Insecurity breeds fear. And dread””fear of change, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world””is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest. It is a reality evident even is as trusting a place as North Staffordshire.

All change is disruptive. We have seen that the spectre of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil. Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences in the years to come. People will inevitably be thrown back upon the resources of the state. They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for “security” and a fear of the other. The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state. It is thus incumbent upon us to recast the role of government. If we do not, others will.

The new MP for the Moorlands in the local paper talks about ensuring that the pain of the cuts will be equally shared but to quote a line from Samuel Beckett it will not. It will be the poor, the vulnerable and the isolated who will suffer the most

Poverty is a preoccupation especially for the poor. But the tangible results of an accumulated impoverishment are all about us. Poor neighbourhoods, derelict land, failed schools, the unemployed, the low paid, and the abandoned: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so contagious that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong much less set about repairing it. And in that there is something seriously wrong.

To comprehend the depths to which we have fallen; we must understand the scale of the changes that have overtaken us. From the late nineteenth century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services, and guarantees against acute misfortune, modern democracies were shedding extremes of wealth and poverty. The Roosevelt New Deal and banking reforms being an excellent example.

Since 1980 we have abandoned this tradition. To be sure, “we” varies with country. The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference- the private affluence and public squalor argument- has resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicentres of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unravelling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice

The UK is now more unequal””in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances””than at any time since the beginning of the 20th century despite 13 years of New Labour. There are more poor children in the UK than in any other country of the European Union. Since 1973, inequality in take-home pay increased more in the UK than anywhere except the US. Most of the new jobs created in Britain in the years 1977″“2007 were at either the very high or the very low end of the pay scale of which Stoke provides a good example. And on the radio this morning the head of the Centre for Cities gave a gloomy prediction for places like Stoke and Hull which have been loosing private sector jobs even before the recession.

The consequences are clear. There has been a collapse in social mobility: in contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today in the UK have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. The poor stay poor. Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunity and””increasingly””the familiar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling, violence and minor criminality. The unemployed or underemployed lose such skills as they have acquired and become chronically surplus to the economy.

. Even trust, the faith we have in our fellow citizens, corresponds negatively with differences in income: between 1983 and 2001, mistrustfulness increased markedly in the US and the UK, countries in which the dogma of unregulated individual self-interest was most assiduously applied to public policy. In no other country was a comparable increase in mutual mistrust to be found.

Inequality is a poison. It rots societies from within. And it is rotting the UK. The impact of material differences takes a while to manifest itself: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens- think of the ridicule directed at Chavs. (Some of this mockery was directed at me as a checkout operator the other day) and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked.

The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is very bitter indeed.

As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders. Relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the post war decades. Having carried out some research into the 1950s I can vouch for that at least from the greater social capital that we seemed to have in that decade.

How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else? Perhaps we might start by reminding ourselves and our children that it was not always so. Thinking the way we have done for thirty years is not deep-rooted in the human condition. There was a time when we ordered our lives differently. It is up to people to recover this past.

Nu Labour- Goodbye and Good Riddance

There is a pleasant country walk that goes from the Haregate Estate in Leek to Tittesworth Lake. It takes about an hour to do and there are excellent views over to the Roaches.

Along the walk are a series of benches, which have been provided by the local PCT so that people can sit and admire the views. Cut into the 8 benches is a series of health promotion messages about obesity and exercise and the need to raise your heart beat.

I cordially detest the messages and have to think that they are pointless what is the reason for directing messages at people who are undertaking some moderate exercise but I hate the messages for the simple reason that they sum up the ethos behind Nu Labour perfectly.

If I were to characterise the last Government I would be using one word that word would be control. The messages on the benches seem to perfectly encapsulate that. It suggest that the people cannot be trusted and only we the middle class professionals who devised the idea and used public money to have the messages inscribed know what is good for you. It says we really despise you for your unwillingness to accept the messages we give you.

Of course sometimes the loathing spills out such as Brown at Rochdale but the evidence has been all around for some time.

” Friends of the people” sometimes I struggle to find a connection.

I have experienced it myself. On the occasion when I took my 3-month-old daughter to a Sure Start Centre in Ellesmere Port and was told that I, as a white man, I must be a bad parent. I have seen it at innumerable meetings when some one makes a disparaging comment about the people of Stoke because they are stupid or fat or lazy or vote BNP. The people who make these comments are usually middle class professionals who live some distance away from the City. They use their prejudices to further seek control over the lives of the people they have so little time for

My other example, which I like to use to illustrate the folly of Nu Labour, was the setting up of the School Food Trust following the expose of Jamie Oliver on the condition of catering in schools around the country. The response of Nu Labour was to set up the Trust based in Sheffield. My partner at the time was working in a school kitchen. The findings of the TV programme on the general poor quality of school food led to more food preparation time for the school cooks. However it did not lead to more pay. On the other hand the newly set up quango in South Yorkshire quickly acquired a Board of Nu Labour cronies as well as well paid posts. I seem to recall a media officer employed on £95,000 a year.

Then there were the targets. Not a week seemed to go under the previous regime without some manifestation of the consequence of the target culture. Trolleys in hospital corridors have their wheels removed so that they become beds thereby meeting a target. Schools teach to the league tables when the number of 16-18 year olds not in education or further training rose. Police Officers spending less time on the beat and more on paperwork to prove that they are meeting a central imposed agenda.

Social Workers occupy much of their time huddled over computers imputing data rather than dealing with their clients. Everyone it seems has a target and it seems to be getting in the way of the ability of people to provide a public service.

There are many reasons why people should have been in open revolt by the way that in which many have to leave professional judgement outside their place of work. Let us hope the new Government has learned the lesson.

Let us hope that if the axe is to fall it falls on the panoply of the target industry. It has been calculated that performance management costs an average size local authority of around 300,000 £1 million a year. Then there are the consultants that are employed. Then there are the computer systems that have to be developed to monitor this questionable system. Costly systems which have blighted the management of the NHS, farm payments, child benefit, employment records and tax credit. And of course an aspect of the performance management culture is the impenetrable jargon filled language, which frequently attends it. All culminating in the grotesque spectacle of an authority have to have passed all its targets and deemed a 3 star authority at the same time as Baby P was happening.

There were of course were the other failings. The dalliance with the finance industry and the light touch regulation that lead to a. Finance Services Authority which failed to protect the public from risk. The wars, the overweening arrogance that led it to blatantly ignores the wishes of ordinary members over uses of council house revenues, the 10 pence tax fiasco, the growing inequality, ID Cards, the surveillance society meant to combat terrorism, but used to see what people were putting in their bins or living within a school catchment area. I could go on and perhaps you have your own favourite.

Now it seems to me that the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party have sworn not to follow the mistakes of the years of Nu Labour. I do not think that this goes far enough and that they should be made to rub their noses in the mess that they have created.

I have been watching quite a few films about US Presidents as well as reading avidly. FDR strives me as a individual who believed that politics could be made to work for people and the role of government was to mobilise individuals to deliver a good society. That is what I want from my politics to believe that an individual through the democratic process could work for the betterment of society and the crucial difference from the failed Nu Labour experiment in communities that are empowered.

The terrible verdict on Nu Labour that despite the good will and the popular mandate it had in 1997 it allowed an opportunity that it was given to be wasted.

Tackling the North Staffs low wage economy

The DWP has recently released data on the impact of the recession on the low waged.

The number of children in poverty in working households has increased in recent years. In part, this is the effect of the recession. The employment statistics show a big increase in part-time working up by 45%, and it is such part-working families ““ where either no one is working full-time or where one adult is staying at home ““ that are usually the ones who are both in work and in poverty. I suspect that the problem which I recently wrote about is a dilema faced by an increasing number of households in North Staffs.

Of course North Staffs has historically been a low wage economy but there is evidence that even with the existence of the National Miminum Wage poverty in work remains an intracable problem.

The recession, though, is only part of the story here. With the exception of the period 1999-2004, in-work poverty has been on a rising trend since at least as long ago as the late 1970s. It was the return to rising in-work poverty after 2004-05 that destroyed the last Government’s objective of halving child poverty by 2010.

The way the DWP reports this statistic, six in every 10 children in poverty now belong to a working household. This proportion is broadly similar for the 7.8 million working-age adults in poverty. The increase in this number over 10 years, of 1.1 million, would be seen as a huge policy failure had the previous government ever shown the slightest interest in adults without children.

And perhaps this in truth is why the DWP has said so little about these figures. For it suits politicians of all parties to claim that work is the route out of poverty. But clearly, myself included work, does not necessary end the slipping into poverty.

The truth is very different. Work that does not provide a sufficient income is now much more to blame for poverty than worklessness. One question that has to be addressed is whether wages have been surpressed by the influx of immigrant labour from Eastern Europe.

If the new government is serious about poverty reduction, it will need to direct its reform efforts not just at the world of welfare but at the world of work.

A de regulated economy with a emasculated trade union movement has had a devastating impact upon the working poor of North Staffs.

Personally the solution must lie in building into the tax and benefit system a security that makes work pay and as a Green Party member I am drawn to the Citizens Income model

Hello Workfare

I went to an event organised by the Council for Voluntary Service in Hanley this week. The CVS are looking to recruit about 15 “Community Buddies” to do something to tackle worklessness in the 40 odd wards in Staffordshire where the unemployment rate is over 23%. This is a Staffordshire project as Stoke is considering another approach. 17 people attended and there will be other recruitment events held elsewhere in Staffs. The approach of Community Buddies is essentially a softly softly one where people who have been on incapacity benefit will be encouraged to re join work by trying voluntary work or undergoing training.

I did manage to speak to some of the others who were interested in becoming a buddy. Most of the people there were unemployed and some had been on incapacity benefit themselves. Generally the opinion of the Job Centre service was a poor one. I was told for instance of a “Pauline and her pens” moment where the Job Centre criticised a woman for missing some Job Centre appointment when the woman went off for a hurriedly arranged interview which she was successful at. My informant said that the woman was puce with anger at the way in which she was treated.

Of course the whole approach of Community Buddies is a gentle one as I know from experience unemployment can erode self-confidence. One contributor spoke of the process of retreat that the person who looses their job experiences. But it did make me think about the future of such services. There was a discussion on Radio 4 this morning on the likely impact of the cuts in welfare.

Given that pensions are projected to rise, and the link with earnings eventually restored, the main brunt of any cuts will probably fall on benefit claimants, whether they are on job-seekers allowance or employment support allowance. The Liberals and Tories have agreed on bringing forward workfare proposals. At the moment, private companies are given lucrative contracts to pressurise the unemployed back to work on the assumption that unemployment is voluntary and results from some moral failing. (This attitude, it has to be said comes through at Hanley Job Centre. I was asked why I was restricting my work search by putting down a 9 am start on my contract. I aid that I had to take my daughter to school in the morning. The Job Centre worker suggested that I ask a neighbour to take my daughter to school. I recall feeling outraged as I had applied for about 80 jobs unsuccessfully by that time)

. Such schemes, its was suggested on the radio this morning would begin within 12 months of one having been on the unemployment rolls, as things currently stand. The new government will ensure that people are immediately transferred to one of these schemes, as soon as they start to claim. As I understand the Tories’ policies on workfare, they intend to build on New Labour projects which in turn are based on American models which hounded the disabled and single mothers to seek work, and force those on job seekers allowance to perform menial labour for private contractors so that they remain ‘in the habit’ of working.

(Of course, those doing the work won’t be entitled to the minimum wage, much less the ‘Living Wage’, or employee protections). In the long run, the Tory-Lib coalition anticipates a reduction in benefits due to these measures. So, I would guess we’re talking about a serious attack on the welfare state, an attempt to force more and more people off welfare rolls we do live in interesting times