I learn from a BBC magazine article by Jon Kelly today that many people are preoccupied with postcodes and dissatisfied with their own. Is this more a cause of class divisions, or an effect?
If we didn’t already live in a highly stratified society, maybe these arbitrary strings of letters and numbers would be a matter of universal indifference and do no more than serve their function of distinguishing one place from another. But I think it’s more likely that the very act of ‘distinguishing one place from another’ implies hierarchical arrangement for many people, and the prospect of superiority and inferiority, in a way that our culture likes to reinforce.
Kelly reports that ‘aggrieved groups who feel their postcode somehow doesn't reflect their sense of place are campaigning for change’ – I didn’t realise you could – and doing so with ‘a separatist zeal’.
It strikes me that you have to ‘come out’ as a snob in order to organise or participate in a campaign of this sort. You can’t just mumble behind the net curtains, you have to make public statements about yourself in relation to others; and you have to make those statements with other people and to other people.
It’s this readiness to accept being identified as a snob – almost as if it were something to be proud of – that I find most curious. Is our age uncharacteristic in this sense, or is this a phenomenon universal across history and geography? (Is there a social anthropologist in the house?) (And what's their address?)
It can be hard to find a good word to say about estate agents. This morning I had a conversation about their role (or potential role) as sponsors for neighbourhood online networks. There are examples around and you can see why it works for all parties.
But whoever heard of an estate agent who says they will invest their profits into community development?
‘We believe that all estate agents should be run as social enterprises, where, after running costs and people’s salaries, all profits are pumped back into the local communities where they operate. This would mean that estate agents would contribute positively to empowering the less well-off in their area, instead of contributing to pricing people out of their own communities. People would also want to use them because they would know their money is benefiting their community as a whole, helping to create a more collective and diverse environment in which to live.’
It’s curious how without thought we come to accept certain kinds of service as belonging in the private sector, and others as being in the public sector. But there are some examples that force us to reflect. Most people probably think the fire service, for instance, is rightly a public service; but its origins are in the private sector (insurance). Many people might suppose that the lifeboat system is publicly-funded, and perhaps it should be, but it’s entirely charitable.
The great thing about the social enterprise movement is that it stimulates fresh thinking on these sorts of questions without getting tangled in the ridiculous anti-public ideology of the right. Why shouldn’t the work of estate agents be seen as a community service?
I’m really impressed.
The recent extensive flooding in England was not too bad around where I live, but still it has highighted the ways nature will take revenge when abused: sometimes with violence, sometimes with subtlety.
Here, the canal level seems to have raised quantities of plastic junk and then left it on display as the waters receded, as if to say, 'Excuse me, you dropped something'.
First they came for the benefits, and I did not speak out, because I was not on benefits.
Then they came for the care services, and I did not speak out, because I was not in care.
Then they came for the pensions and the squatters and the spare rooms, and I did not speak out, because I have my own home and some savings.
Then they came for legal aid, and I did not speak out, because I have not yet been arrested and accused.
Then they came for the teachers, and the nurses, and the social workers, and the health visitors, and the librarians, and the probation workers, and the firefighters, and the environmental experts, and there was no-one left to support me.
(With apologies to Martin Niemoller)
'Space To Park is a user-generated resource of best practice for those seeking parking solutions in new build residential development. This website showcases a series of developments and sets up a constructive discussion about what works and where, from the point of view of users, designers and other experts.'
I fear this letter from Keith Flett in today's Independent, referring to the politics of the recent floods in England, is too easily overlooked and it really deserves not to be:
A government that promotes austerity measures and claims that Big Society volunteers and the private sector will pick up what the public service can no longer do was always likely to end in a bad place, and now it has.
While people in a number of areas are suffering from flooding, it is clear that cuts to the Environment Agency’s budget and staffing have made a difficult situation worse.
No doubt some volunteers are helping in flood work, but there are limits. Dredging rivers and saving life and limb are jobs for professionals, and they are to be found in the public sector. After weeks of flooding in Somerset, there has been no evidence of volunteer or private sector dredging operations. Rather, it is the Army who are called into help.
It is probably too much to hope that the ideologues of the present government will take the point, but one suspects that voters will.
Keith Flett, London N17
The bells of St Mary’s church in Ashwell chime every fifteen minutes, day and night. I can imagine that must be fun. But it is said that we don’t like to complain in this country, and maybe you can see why.
Understandably a few residents have asked for the mechanism to be disabled some of the time. Tsk, moaning minnies. The ‘Save the Bells’ campaigners – I’m not making this up – are determined to resist such prissy disregard for tradition, and will turn litigious if their precious din is threatened. Just ask ‘chimes campaigner’ Chris Pack:
"If we have a referendum that asks people if they wish the bells to remain as they are and that referendum is overwhelming, we have the support there and it is captured legally."
He added legal advice would also be sought to overturn any decision which turned the bells off.
Ah, democracy in action eh? If there is some advantage in subjecting residents to routine chiming throughout the night, it is not revealed to us and I’m unable to guess. It would be interesting to reflect on what these campaigners might do with their time, energy and determination if there were pro-social causes for them to adopt.
The other day I was contacted by a TV production company seeking my help in recruiting children and young people for a documentary programme about their experience of poverty. Obviously contacts like these are now subtly different, post-Benefits street: but in what way?
Would another production company dare to treat people who experience exclusion in the way the producers of Benefits street did? Well, yes, quite possibly.
There may be a different atmosphere now, but it does feel just like the no-brainer of press regulation, with plenty of empty words spouted so that journalists can go on manipulating disempowered people in the interests of corporate profit.
Against that, I would so much like there to be a broadcast of the voices and experiences of young people like those we reproduced in A series of doors. That could have some impact, and would be worth striving for. But don’t hold your breath, there isn’t going to be a TV version of A series of doors. I passed on the request in a neutral way, but I’ll be surprised if there are any takers.
There’s a question here about disregarding this opportunity as being ‘wrong channel’ – in two senses. First, I won’t reveal which TV channel is expected to broadcast the documentary, but it’s one which has done nothing to accumulate trust in the quality of its programmes. Secondly, is there an argument for turning backs on mainstream broadcast media – which, with a few exceptions, have let so many people down through callous, politicised and exploitative behaviour - in favour of all-out social media?
Will social media come to outplay TV, in spite of the well-known problems of trolls and trash, where issues of this kind are concerned? Does the Benefits street rumpus represent a watershed in the history of the popular politics of welfare, in which the great artilleries of the broadcast industries are finally discredited and the guerrilla style of social technologies might be seen, retrospectively at least, to right some wrongs? (OK, well let me have my moment of optimism, I need it).
If you’re sceptical about the role that media companies play in the creation of an uncaring society, you might want to glance over at the Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: Sue Marsh has blogged in some detail about her experience in this respect. She makes clear that it’s not just the media companies: the government is playing a canny game by declining to debate welfare, as Marsh explains:
‘For some time now, the DWP and No.10 have refused to put anyone up against me. (and presumably other campaigners) at all. At first, 3 (all BBC) went ahead, but the various researchers were all genuinely shocked at the lack of government engagement. All said they'd never known such blanket refusals to debate an issue.
Perhaps more sinisterly, they were shocked that invariably the DWP refused to take part unless the stories were edited their way. Iain Duncan-Smith has written repeatedly and furiously to the BBC about their lack of balance in reporting welfare issues… it's clever isn't it? Refuse to debate at all and generally it will mean there can be no debate. You can shut down any and all opposition simply by saying nothing at all.’
It’s a bit sad that the researchers in question were so naïve as to be ‘shocked’ by the secretary of state's attitude, but that maybe tells us that the media bubble and the Westminster bubble don’t necessarily overlap. Sue finishes her post with what might be interpreted as a rallying cry around ‘social media if nowhere else’ so maybe my thoughts aren’t entirely misguided.
Finally on this theme, here’s the excellent Suzanne Moore writing about how ‘everything now starts from the prevailing Tory narrative that "welfare" is a luxury we can no longer afford’. She's right, and of course the use of the word 'luxury' is supremely, imperiously insulting to thousands of people who need support. Moore concludes:
‘None of the main parties represent a significant challenge to the idea that at the bottom of society a "culture of entitlement" exists. The culture of entitlement in reality exists at the top, in the form of sanctioned tax avoidance. But the supposed trickle down of wealth does not happen. Instead, there has been a trickle down of the attitudes of the wealthy: a disconnection from the state, mutual obligation and shared humanity.’
I just wonder, post-Benefits street, if there has been a significant attitude shift? If so, you wouldn’t expect politicians in the main parties to be among the first to notice.
JRF has some fascinating work going on at the moment under the heading of ‘Risk, trust and relationships in an ageing society’, which includes a theme frequently covered on this blog, ‘everyday, informal support between neighbours, friends, and in communities.’
One of the striking features of this JRF thread is the refreshing focus on the notion of ‘kindness.’ You might not see it being fitted into current government policy all that smoothly, but that’s no reason not to treat it as worthy of research and likely to generate insights.
And let’s pay tribute to the fact that this is not a new departure for JRF, they’re building on a decent track record. Two examples: in 2004 they published Building a good life for older people in local communities, a delight which I’ve cited many times; or you could go back to 1998 for their superb study on the importance of ‘low level’ preventive services to older people.
Now here’s a recent example of the way this work is going, an interim report by Helen Spandler and colleagues on perceptions of giving and being in receipt of informal help. The work so far is based on a quick and not-all-that-dirty street survey, apparently designed to harvest a range of attitudes (and the associated language) to frame subsequent investigation. What the researchers are trying to do is get at the implicit ‘rules’ surrounding the giving and receiving of help.
They note that ‘only a small number of people felt completely comfortable in receiving support from others.’ Religious and cultural contexts have a strong influence, and the tensions around mutual interdependence vs independent individualism soon emerge:
‘Many participants … made reference to Northern working class backgrounds, which they felt valued relationships over material wealth. Yet, that same culture also taught a strong sense of individual independence, which could make the need for help seem like a weakness. In this way, cultures could be experienced as both supportive, and simultaneously as harsh and inflexible.’
A few years ago I drew attention to the work of Lilian Linders in the Netherlands, exploring the significance of the reluctance to ask for help. Lilian’s research highlighted the fact that the imbalance in the provision of informal care lies on the demand side, not the supply side: the extent to which we live in a caring society is constrained by the ‘request scruple’ – a widespread reluctance, for various reasons, to ask for help.
It looks like the present project is finding similar issues. ‘Giving and receiving support’, the researchers note, ‘is constantly negotiated within a complex 'moral economy' of familial, local and societal expectation.’ They describe this as an ecosystem that requires cultivation. Families can be fortresses of support, implicitly discouraging help from elsewhere, but there can be examples where asking is disouraged even within the family. One correspondent said:
‘It makes me feel vulnerable to ask. I reckon my family would translate asking for help as weakness.’
At the heart of all this is the tension between not being seen as 'weak, needy, demanding or ‘undeserving’’ and ‘a strong sense that giving was a good and moral thing to do.’
As we know, social care policy is concerned with the supply side, whether it be support for carers, the uneven provision of personal home care, encouragement to volunteer or whatever. But the challenge for JRF at the end of this programme may be in articulating a call for much broader cultural change: change that will help in overcoming the scruples that people have about asking for help.
I missed this when first broadcast back in December, but R4 are now repeating three programmes under the heading ‘Whatever happened to community?’
Slipping from labelled urban to fabled rural, he solicits views from some insightful folk along the way, including David Goodhart for example. Scale and diversity were the main themes of the first episode, which you can catch for a few more days here, with the remainder in the next couple of weeks.
As these programmes go, I thought it was pretty good. At least we got an unequivocal statement from a resident about how the architects and planners had got things plain wrong. This is not trivial when you think how determined architects can be to defend their mistakes. There was also some brief reference to the experience of community over the centuries, and there is plenty to be gained from a more thorough look in that direction, as Emily Cockayne for instance has shown.
Scanning the blurb about the forthcoming programmes though, I saw no reference to gated communities. Given the attention paid so far to ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ community, inclusion implying exclusion, and so forth, it would be a curious omission not to use gating and locking and ‘secured by design’ as a lens for further insight: especially if the last programme is to bring us back to the reality of those huge built estates from which we are still learning.
I'm also starting to wonder about the widespread assumption that neighbouring in recent decades has been changed fundamentally by the proportion of residents who are at home during the day - the decline of the housewife. I think there is something in this argument, but maybe after an interim period, diverse others are now more likely to be at home, so is it time to test the theory with some thorough research? Perhaps the Royal Mail have some data that could be used?
Thanks Martin for the heads up.
Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, seems to like to lob a banger into the fire every now and then. A few sparks have arisen this past few days after he made remarks that have been taken to suggest that neighbours should pry on and police the parenting of fellow-residents.
To be fair to Wilshaw – there’s a phrase I never would have thought I would write – I think it’s nothing of the sort: it was just an eccentric offering of his own, pre-considered and ill-considered.
I reach this view because I have watched a good deal of the select committee meeting where the remark was made. Committee chair Graham Stuart MP (at 10.00.49) was asking, somewhat optimistically I felt, for some guidance on how as a society we might go about compensating for the (perceived) ‘hollowing out’ of family and community.
The Chief Inspector’s remarks were contextualised with reference to the idea of the ‘big society’, first by a member of the committee (at 10.02.46) and then by Wilshaw himself (at 10.06.01). He deliberately prepares the ground for his remarks, even saying that it’s a point he intends to return to later in the discussion.
He talks in terms of ‘social taboos’ (such as fathers accepting their parental responsibilities and parents engaging with their children’s schools) that he believes are diminishing. (Wait: though this be method, yet there is madness in it). He says that this creates a vacuum and that ‘there will be people who can step into that vacuum.’ Then followed the now widely-quoted challenge to policy:
‘How do you incentivise good citizens, good people, good family members to engage with the worst, the most difficult members of society? That’s a policy issue for government. How do you financially incentivise those people to get up in the morning and knock on the neighbour's door and say 'your children are not up yet, they've not had their breakfast yet, why aren't you taking them to school?'’
To their credit, it seems like the committee, unlike some journalists and many others (e.g. in the comments here) were ready to dismiss this as random silliness and move on; and so should the rest of us. It’s not a sensible suggestion and it’s unlikely to have been fed cynically into the system by Tory Central, despite their fondness for blunt and polarising moral over-simplification.
But it was articulated in public and was clearly pre-considered. So not for the first time there are questions about how someone who thinks so carelessly at times can have so much power and influence in the educational and child care sectors.
And how can we have a head of Ofsted who talks so irresponsibly about responsibility, flinging around arbitrary judgemental phrases like ‘good people’ and ‘the worst, most difficult members of society’ when giving evidence to a parliamentary committee? We can only wonder, as these questions have since been overtaken in the news by the subsequent rumoured spat between the minister and the chief inspector. What entertainment.
Some people think that Bill Gates is a jolly decent chap because he gives some of his wealth away. This is the same perverse thinking that celebrates philanthropy as it disempowers people in poverty. I’d like to live in a society where people question the systems and structures that allow half of the world’s wealth to be owned by just one percent of the population. The Oxfam report which publicises this statistic (speaking truth to Davos) makes the point:
‘Some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks. However, the extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.’
It does look like we’re well-past the tipping point of ‘some economic inequality’ and we’re now into dangerous extremes. Oxfam note that:
‘over the past few decades, the rich have successfully wielded political influence to skew policies in their favour on issues ranging from financial deregulation, tax havens, anti-competitive business practices to lower tax rates on high incomes and cuts in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available.’ (Guardian article)
And I weep for all the rights workers in the seventies and eighties who laboured to get equalities principles understood and acts of law passed. Now we have governments that routinely disdain equalities in pursuit of the re-feudalisation of society.
Is there much awareness, let alone discomfort, about this state of affairs? Is it true, as I suggested here, that 'most people don’t really notice, and some even believe them to be doing their best'? Maybe more awareness than I’d have suspected: the Guardian article refers to Oxfam’s survey research:
‘In the UK, some 67% agreed that "the rich have too much influence over where this country is headed" - 37% saying that they agreed "strongly" with the statement - against just 10% who disagreed, 2% of them strongly.’
George Monbiot, meanwhile, is asking whether the reason we’re all so indifferent about the abuses of power around us is because we’re satiated with comfort: too much freedom to be bothered about freedom.
Perhaps that’s part of it – certainly I don’t see how our cultural emphasis on consumption and celebrity can be regarded as healthy – but I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the issue of equalities. Oxfam are right to stress its centrality to social justice. There are people in positions of responsibility who spout the rhetoric of social justice who could appreciate that; but it's not in their interests, or those of their friends.
Since my kids were at school, many moons ago, I’ve been highly sensitive to the need to challenge the obsessive over-regulation of childhood generally and school time in particular. So thank you Peter Gray in today’s Indy for a forceful and knowledgeable articulation of the arguments.
His article reviews the human value of play and its social importance, then reflects on the significant reduction over a couple of generations in the amount of time children have to play. Gray notes that these changes
‘have been caused by a constellation of social factors, including the spread of parents’ fears, the rise of experts who are continuously warning us about dangers, the decline of cohesive neighbourhoods and the rise of a school-centric, or ‘schoolish’, take on child development – the view that children learn more from teachers and other adult directors than they do from one another.’
Apparently this dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play ‘has been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders:’
‘research indicates that empathy has been declining and narcissism increasing, ever since valid measures of these were first developed in the late 1970s.’
Successive governments, feeding the peculiar ambitions of many parents and also being encouraged by those aspirations, have insisted more and more fervently on regulating, controlling and managing a high proportion of children’s lives.
‘The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions…
‘We no longer need people to follow directions in robot-like ways (we have robots for that), or to perform routine calculations (we have computers for that), or to answer already-answered questions (we have search engines for that). But we do need people who can ask and seek answers to new questions, solve new problems and anticipate obstacles before they arise. These all require the ability to think creatively. The creative mind is a playful mind.’
I will be pondering all this more deeply, but I have to pop out shortly to pick up a friend’s children from school, let them loose on a few games for an hour, then ferry them to a tennis lesson…
Just in case I sometimes give the impression that I should get out more, here are two curious observations from recent visits to shops.
Last week I was in one of the aisles in Sainsbury’s at a fairly quiet time. Out of the corner of my eye, at 90 degrees to my left, I noticed a member of staff patrolling beside the counters, as they do. I knew it was a member of staff because of the dark purple-red uniform. What caught my attention was that this person was doing a goose step, let us hope it was just in a moment of unthinking relaxed boredom. Very disconcerting.
And today I was in an Oxfam shop and noticed a screen exhibiting the fact that security cameras were in use. I use charity shops a good deal but perhaps I have not been paying attention: this is the first time I’ve ever noticed a security camera. That too was disconcerting. Is it widespread, in charity shops?
There’s a peculiar argument that because there is a statistical association between single parenthood and poverty, the policy response should be to promote marriage (e.g.). Some influential folk on the right (e.g.) seem to relish this line of thinking because it gives them a sense of moral superiority coupled with a reason not to have to address the realities of poverty. People in poverty are so much easier to blame.
But it’s actually not that difficult to work out, as this Atlantic article by Emily Badger puts it:
‘Fractured family structures don't cause poverty. Poverty causes these family structures. Reduce poverty through more direct means, and we might actually reverse the retreat of marriage along the way.’
As she says, the basic logic ‘casts poverty as the result of a collapse in family values, not as the product of complex structural economic and social factors.’ Badger based her material on this article from the Council on Contemporary Families and quotes the Council’s researcher Kristi Williams:
‘We know marriage has a wide range of benefits, particularly for raising children. And it's not unreasonable to think that it would be nice if all children could enjoy these benefits. The problem is that there’s no evidence that the kind of marriages that poor, single parents enter into will have these same benefits.’
The article points to a range of research that helps explain why so many policy attempts to reassert traditional family structures have failed.
I accept that right wing policy makers in the UK today will struggle with the possibility that there might be a direction of causality contrary to the one they favour. But it’s just possible some light might penetrate the blinkers. Even Conservative Home thinks the minister for welfare and pensions should meet the Trussell Trust to discuss food banks. Poverty is actually quite an important issue, and to have povertyism practised consistently at a high level in policy thinking is disgraceful.
Trust ordinary people in the north to have worked this out: library users in St Helens are being given the option of paying any overdue fines with donations to food banks instead of cash. Since each library is now necessarily a collection and forwarding point, it follows that food donations, irrespective of loans and overdues, will come to them. I applaud that.
If this practice becomes widespread, as I hope it does (guess which councils won't touch it?) it means that at last the public library sector is playing a part in confronting the government over its wretched anti-public policies.
We have a government that regards the public library network as superfluous and food banks as unnecessary. It’s time for both of these ideological sugar-puffs to be not just subjected to occasional half-hearted challenge but forcefully confronted.
There’s a savage class war going on in this country. It was started, not by people in poverty or those experiencing exclusion, but by the Haves, on 31 March 2010. We can but hope that this year will see some deft and deep incisions like that proposed by St Helens Council into the repulsive flab (literal and metaphorical) that these people of wealth and power are so fond of flaunting.
I heard this story from a neighbour the other day. It goes back about 30 years, to just before my time in this neighbourhood.
Apparently one of the residents had been knocked down, elsewhere, by a car. A policeman appeared at my neighbour’s door, asking ‘Do you know Mrs N?’ He hesitated - ‘No I don’t think so’ – only to be dealt a stream of invective:
‘Don’t you know your neighbours? What kind of effing neighbour are you?’
He protested: ‘I do know my neighbours but I don’t know that name…’
‘She lives two doors away. You say you don’t know her? How long have you lived here? You’re a disgrace.’
He told the copper that he’s lived here since the houses were built. And of course, it transpired that he knew the lady who had had the accident, by her first name.
As he told me this story I could tell that the police officer’s attitude still rankled with my neighbour. The officer was part of the dominant authoritarian culture that used surnames – and other techniques of course, especially ritual – to contain the risk of personality. I went to a school that tried to do the same.
The pompous and superior attitude is not the only thing that’s changed since then: we don’t submit so readily to the arrogance of people in positions of authority. If I had an official speak to me like that I’d report them. And blog about it.
Previously: Naming neighbours' names
You don't often hear reference to the concept of network capital these days, which is odd since we're now firmly embedded in a network society, like it or not. But it's reappeared in an unlikely corner. It must be fifteen years since I heard Geoff Mulgan talking about the concept, but here's Mimi Scheller describing how it was crucial to the forms of resistance to slavery in the southern US.
Scheller argues that the institution of slavery can be seen as being defined 'by the exercise of control over mobility, and the immobility of an entire labour force... Almost all of the elements of network capital, ever since the founding of plantation regimes across the Americas, are more concentrated in white hands, and were denied to enslaved people and later to freed people.'
She goes on to talk about how
'The production of space through racial segregation of dwelling places and neighourhoods, of private and public spaces that are racially distinguished, of transit corridors and vehicles that have segregated use of them - all of these areas which became central within US politics and governance of mobility - are arenas of racial domination, racial privilege and demands for racial justice.'
Given my post-Mandela note the other day about the demographics of London bus travel, and given the whiteness of privileged forms of transport that she refers to, this seems a salient and resonant theme. Maybe it is worth reconsidering the potent 1956 image of Rosa Parks on the Montgomery bus in terms of network capital - reflecting on the fact that it was an orchestrated event, that there was a photographer and that that is a reporter sat behind her. The civil rights movement had had to fight first to establish some network capital and learned to exploit it. Mobility was a key factor in that struggle just as Mandela's immobility was a factor which worked first in the interests of, and then against, apartheid.
I humbly suggest that Scheller's video might be a good use of ten minutes of your time. She was co-founder with John Urry of CeMoRe, the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster, and I'm not likely to forget the privilege of having been present at their memorable launch conference in about 2005.
The Gaia satellite has been launched. Its purpose is to map the precise positions and distances to more than a billion stars in the Milky Way. I invite you to join me in admiring the fact that the BBC home page today linked to this story from its 'Local News' section.
On a slightly smaller scale - just internet-wide - it may be of passing interest that this blog is ten years old this month.