Author Archives: Tony Baldwinson

Reducing carbon, block by block

Buildings use a high percentage of global energy, especially in developed countries. Every unit of energy that can be saved can be one less unit of energy from fossil fuels.

So how can developed countries make their buildings more energy efficient?

One way is the road of international agreements which are then implemented through national regulations. But we know this road is closed at the moment.

Another way is bottom up, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, community by community.

Imagine if every building for visitors had its energy rating on the door. Just like we do with fridges and vacuum cleaners, from A+ down to G. A sheet of paper in the window is something everyone can do.

The group of buildings for visitors should include blocks of apartments for rent as well as shops, schools, colleges, places of worship, community centres, and official buildings.

The social pressures across villages, towns, cities and countries to increase the energy efficiency of our buildings would be catalysed, making the world a better place because it could reduce global carbon emissions starting from now.

It might even help unblock the road to international agreements on climate breakdown.

Every street can help the world.

Social Care 2025

It seems likely that social care in Britain will drift from crisis to crisis for the next five years. What might be done to improve this?

British politics is still trying to recalibrate after the December election results. The Labour party is occupied with choosing a new leader, and in that process, choosing some new strategies and policies. The Conservative party are in government and have expelled many former centrist members from parliament. The snake oil of Brexit has been buried for the moment, but it will resurface around July when reality kicks in again.

So, possibly the biggest policy challenge for the government aside from Brexit is social care, and unlike Brexit it cannot be avoided as the pressures within the NHS continue to tear health and social care apart. The policy position of the government on social care is that it wants a cross-party policy consensus, but where the different parties have widely different positions. In short, the conservatives want a market solution while labour wants a public service. So a consensus isn’t possible on the structure, even before we consider how to pay for the structure.

Currently the toxic element is how to fund social care. Public sector spending by councils and in community care has fallen by an estimated 21% in the last ten years. Theresa May tried to suggest a means-tested approach during the 2017 election campaign and it blew up in her hands. The normally supportive right-wing press jumped on the “death tax” slogan because owner-occupiers would have to pay off their social care debt from their estate after they had died, usually by selling the former home.

So, barring a big change in policy by one of the main parties, social care policy looks likely to languish until 2025 or longer. What can we do about that?

Looking at some of the early pioneers in the 1960s, 70s and 80s in England, some disabled people did manage to create their own social care solution and leave hospital wards and charity homes to live in the community in flats and houses. Examples include Pamela La Fane, Ken Davis and Maggie Hines (Davis), John Evans, Margaret Wymer, June Maeltzer, and no doubt others.

Each solution was person-centred and often a creative mix of funding and mutualism. Housing association funding was sometimes stretched to its limits, as were local authority support and resources. More than once the lawyers had to be called in to confirm a solution was lawful.

Many in the Labour party are calling for more local activism as a strategy to rebuilding support. The usually examples of local activism tend to include things like running a food bank, an advice centre, organising litter picking days, writing leaflets and newsletters and very-local social media groups, meals and bingo sessions for pensioners.

A question for the moment is how might such local activism support new social care solutions? And not just more bingo.

Is “work pays” still a useful policy, or are we now needing a Universal Income?

Summary

The “work pays” policy was a cornerstone of social policy and practice for much of the 20th century. However, the decline in the quality of much work in the 21st century, matched with new limits and cuts in benefits, now means that the former certainty of this policy is now undermined. A Universal Income is a suggested new tool in fighting poverty and disadvantage, but it currently has some flaws.

Discussion

In the 1980s and 1990s the strong belief in community regeneration was in a policy known as “work pays.” For anyone who was unemployed, the belief was that helping someone get a job was the single best thing that you could do as a practitioner. It improved people’s mental health, their physical health, their range of contacts and support, the life chances, and these benefits extended to the immediate family – children would do better at school, for example.

Some of these claims were articles of faith rather than being based on documented research, but the feeling was it so obvious as not worthy of a long study.

And mostly this belief was well-founded. Though I do recall at some meetings in Manchester in the voluntary sector in the 1980s having to remind people that it had its limits. Some of my reminders were:
– There are some people we can get along with at work but we would never invite home.
– There are some supervisors who are basically not very nice at work, and the temptation to storm out of work with a “you can stuff your job” over the shoulder is sometimes hard to resist.
– And, it is hard if you are the first person in your household to have a job, because you have to go to sleep earlier than everyone else, and everyone assumes you have more money to share, even in your first week or month when you are spending on buses etc and waiting to be paid.

Those caveats aside, broadly the “work pays” policy was a strong cornerstone of social policy, certainly up to 2000.

But, slowly a drift in the economy started to undermine this policy. The push for a “flexible labour market” led to a freelance culture being spread from middle-class professionals to working class communities, the most obvious aspects being zero-hours contracts and self-employment as a means of avoiding employment law duties.

Sensing that the world of work was becoming less rewarding, the policy consensus by the national political parties at the time was to “align” welfare benefits with the labour market. At it’s best, this could mean that the transition from unemployment to work was smoother. But more often at it’s worst, this meant that benefits were driven downwards to match the falling standards in the world of work.

Trade unions also had increasing legal restrictions placed on their operations. In a climate of declining membership and de-industrialisation, trade unions were at risk of becoming craft associations again. This trend, if followed for some years, could protect the higher career grades at the expense of labourers etc, just as the craft guilds had been up to the 1870s when the unionisation of dock workers started the era of mass working class membership.

Perhaps the lowest point, so far at least, of these trends in ratcheting down employment rights, welfare benefits rights, and trade union protection rights, was in the creation of Universal Credit.

The proponents of Universal Credit tried to pretend that “work pays” was still effective, conveniently ignoring more recent evidence of its failings as outlined above, and in its later stages being cut back even further by Chancellors of the Exchequer in the name of Austerity. Limiting the number of children that can be supported by a family while being unemployed is probably the most egregious of these cuts.

Few serious social policy advisors would now argue the advantages of Universal Credit; but there is a lot of interest in its possible replacement by a Universal Income.

In short, a universal income would be payable to every adult, working or not. For me, it should be paid weekly because the idea of poor people budgeting monthly is a vindictive fiction – every poor person has times with no money, but a few days to ‘pay day’ is easier to live with than trying to go for weeks with nothing.

But a universal income must also have additional costs top-ups. The additional costs that disabled people have to meet are probably the largest here. Child benefit, at a rate where children are genuinely taken out of poverty, is another.

Finally, any such changes will involve winners and losers. This is a fair point, but let’s be honest about the score so far, that already some people have been on a winning streak through incredible tax cuts and loopholes. Maybe “work pays” as a policy is over, but we are still a fair way from “living pays”.

The need for a hub in Manchester for disabled people’s organisations

For sixteen years, Manchester had a hub for disabled people’s organisations. Based in Ardwick, Aked Close was the home for a cluster of disabled people’s organisations from 1997 to 2013. The anchor organisation which had overall responsibility for Aked Close was Breakthrough UK, which had disabled people’s employment as its main focus. Other organisations working there as well included:

– Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People

– People First

– Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group,

– Manchester Young Disabled People’s Forum,

as well as

– the council’s direct payments team.

There were many advantages to this hub arrangement, including the shared use of a fully accessible main hall, generous car parking for disabled drivers, and shared costs for common services such as reception, security, and cleaning. But perhaps the key advantage was having a shared working and meeting space with like-minded people and organisations.

The cross-learning, the organisational and personal mentoring, the solidarity, and the sense of community was profoundly energising in driving forward the reputation of Manchester as a national centre of progressive thought and practices at the forefront of disabled people’s rights.

Aked Close was leased by Breakthrough UK from Manchester City Council. The building was run within the social services department, and had previously been one of their office bases, which they had called Ross Place.

The difficulties started with the change of government in 2010, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats which embarked on a policy of austerity by cuts in the public sector, but with a focus on local authorities, on social care, and on disabled people. This perfect storm put intense pressure on all the organisations based at Aked Close. The organisations managed to survive this storm for three years, but eventually the pressures were too great.

Unfortunately Manchester City Council wasn’t able to shelter Aked Close from that storm, and instead sought a large rent increase to, reportedly, just under a hundred thousand pounds. This was not affordable to the tenants, especially at a time when their grant income was either frozen or ending suddenly.

This meant that the tenants had to disburse to various smaller, separate, and more isolated premises. And perhaps to rub salt in the wound, when the social services department took control of the building again for their own uses, they insisted on changing the name back to Ross Place. And they found enough funds to spend almost a year refurbishing the building (Engie Regeneration Ltd, Jan – Nov 2018).

When Breakthrough UK started in the mid-1990s its initial work was to take some legacy social services projects on employment for disabled people. This involved changing the management and control of those projects, changing the governance so that disabled people’s organisations gained control from non-disabled managers within the council.

The feeling remains that some managers within the council, once austerity started, saw a chance to settle a grievance and regain control of the building if not the legacy projects they had also lost to disabled people’s organisations.

But, maybe we can draw a line on the closure of Aked Close and how it was done six years ago, and now look forward to creating a new, affordable hub in Manchester for disabled people’s organisations. I hope so.

And a word of caution.

There is a view that Manchester should have a CIL – a centre for independent living, sometimes called inclusive living or integrated living. It would be tempting to see such a new CIL as a hub, but if so:

(a) it must have the full range of characteristics and the necessary scale to be truly a hub, and

(b) any CIL must not become a cost-saving outsourcing of social care assessments and direct payments admin leading to reductions in disabled people’s independence by finding savings so that other parts of the council or government can have more to spend.

Nor in the suggestions for a Manchester CIL should we forget that not long ago the Trafford CIL nearby has had to close down after cuts in its grants.

[ends]

What would urban regeneration look like if we relied less on alcohol?

It is a new truism in urban regeneration that we will have to rely less on vanilla retail for town and city centres, partly because of the trend towards online shopping and also with the trend towards smaller and more frequent on-the-way-home shopping. Even cinemas are losing footfall to Netflix.

And instead we should design High Streets for corporeal *experiences* such as eating, coffee shop chats with mates, haircuts, and galleries. Bookshops are on the cusp of sustaining and declining, and I for one hope they continue because browsing for new books cannot work virtually.

But maybe top of the experiences list, at least financially, is alcohol. So we wish for quiet and sophisticated high-earning consumers who will sit together with a £65 bottle or two of St Émilion before their taxis home, but … we mostly get noisy anti-social groups intimidating streets and public transport with a strain on police, paramedics, and cleansing services.

And a public health legacy which includes heart disease and kidney failure, and researched increases in domestic violence.

So although taxes are collected and High Streets are vibrant, I feel we should think a little harder about *sustainable* urban communities and how we could do better for our town and city centres.

Yes, a Brexit no deal is a bluff, but not with the EU, it is with the British people

There is a view that the Government’s threat of a Brexit no-deal is a bluff. This is possible, but maybe the bluff is not with the EU leaders (they are used to this from the UK by now) but instead the bluff is with the British people.

Basically the strategy is to scare the bejeebers out of everyone sensible, and to rally to the flag everyone who thinks Brexit is brilliant.

But all the time with the Government cynically knowing that a deal must be done, and that the options are very few. So, for example, while we keep the bluff playing out on TV and in the papers, how do we get ready behind the scenes to dress up a Norway-type option as a brilliant UK deal in late October?

1. Don’t ever call it the Norway option, even though it removes the need for any hard border backstop within the island of Ireland; and removes the threat of tariffs on farms. Maybe call it “UK-Plus”.

2. Use all your force to bounce people into the deal at the last moment, saying it has to be this UK-Plus or no deal.

3. Throw out a lot of smoke and noise about “side deals”, about further transitions being on the cards, about freedom to start free trade talks around the world – the beginning not the end, that sort of thing.

4. Come out hard on EU nationals living in the UK: divide them into good ones (such as much-needed nurses) and bad ones (insert racist stereotypes here). Require all EU nationals to register in the National Insurance system on arrival, deport any not paying in after three months, and agree a “side deal” with EU countries to recharge the return-journey costs. Probably not cost-effective, but it plays well in the nationalist press.

5. Get some good pictures for TV of all the MEPs packing their bags and leaving the EU Parliament.

6. And convert some of the no deal contingency funds into £350m a week for the NHS.

Politics – how we might get from breakdown to recovery

What should progressive people and groups do when we find themselves in a failed State? The usual response to a reactionary government would be to plan to overcome them at the first opportunity, usually being at the next general election. But for.

Parliament breakdown

The Labour party in the UK is in a strange difficulty. At the same time as being the party with the largest membership base of any in western Europe; it is also a party without sufficient MPs in the House of Commons to seize control. And election polls predict no improvement here. Labour claim the polls will be proved wrong, but this is despite the low voting numbers in the European elections a few months ago. A contributing factor here is the breakdown of tribal loyalties to the two largest parties in England, where maybe such a lifelong voting habit was a 20th century voting habit that is now fading away.

Brexit breakdown

And without rehearsing the whole argument, in short Brexit has sliced UK politics in profoundly new ways – new left-right alliances that were impossible even three years ago, and new divisions within all the main parties and within many communities.

Climate breakdown

And a climate emergency with science showing an imminent tipping point for the planet – which means the politics of ‘kicking zero carbon down the road’ to 2050 is just a dishonest gesture.

The usual solutions

One response to any crisis is to open the bottom drawer and fetch out the dusty hobby horses. The answer to our troubles is to be found in … electoral reform … one more push … higher taxation … carbon tax … assemblies … referendums … local currencies … etc. But in our bones we know that these will not cut it, and certainly not if they are done alone. The scale of the problem is such that things like these that used to be our strategies have been reduced to just being tactics.

Old influencers are under attack

The old trusted organisations that influenced the thinking and behaviours of people in communities and across the country are fading away. The trusted news sources, the discredited authority of some church and faith organisations, and our shared experience of a mass media – all are in decline. Partly with through the use of a tech revolution these large, sometimes stodgy, old influencers are being sliced and diced by the unchecked power of wealth and its unlimited greed.

New channels of resistance

Perhaps the power we are looking for is to be found in the places where we share our lives. Towns and cities can be small enough to build relationships and large enough to make a difference when they move to collective action. If so, it means disengaging from national government except to resist it. It cannot be a network if that is only to be a cover to provide window-dressing for what remains a national organisation, it has to be a new way of working that is non-national and anti-nationalist.

For the longer term, the task will be how to re-make national government in a way which better resists the forces of greed and nationalism.