Monday, 25 February 2013

People power in action.

‘Are you going on the march later?’ the young man from the Socialist Party collections signatures outside Poundland is almost touchingly grateful when I say that I am. It’s early in the day but he already looks like a man who has faced more than his fair share of apathy.

I’d got into Hanley early in order to take in a little of the ‘colour’ of a town that is the economic heart of Stoke-on-Trent and the focus of most efforts to regenerate the city. They hadn’t, from what I could see, bourn much fruit.

There are several major chain stores in the town, M&S and Primark being probably the biggest names and no shortage of discount retailers. The Pound Bakery is only a short walk from Poundland, you can get a lot for a pound in a city like Stoke; its just there aren’t as many pounds to go around these days.

In the Potteries Centre, a 1980’s shopping arcade that hulks over the town like a medieval castle, the fronts of empty units are covered over with huge pictures of models with eight foot wide smiles frolicking on a beach that seems a world away from the chilly February day outside. Those shops that are open have ‘sale’ signs plastered over their windows and the handful of customers milling about inside seem to be doing more looking than buying.

Broad Street, the proposed location of the Central Business District (CBD), to which Stoke-on-Trent City Council plans to move the Civic Centre, has a bit of colour of its own. Predominantly that of brick dust from small businesses that have been swept away to make room for the project mixed with the garish pastel colours of the signs telling passing motorists that what is in effect a corporate land grab has been enacted as part of the council’s ‘Mandate for Change.’

The problem is the council don’t actually have a mandate for what they’re doing; the plan which could cost upwards of £40million of mostly borrowed money has been pushed through without consulting the public. At a time when the council has slashed its budget by £21million this year alone this has left local residents as mad as hell and not willing to take it any more.

The march that is the latest public manifestation of their anger is to start from a former school now used as the offices of the North Staffordshire African Caribbean Association, when I arrive at a little after eleven it is a scene of mildly eccentric chaos. There are a lot of people milling around wearing paper elephant masks, to sent the message that the new Civic Centre is a white elephant, a woman strolls past dressed as an undertaker, Stoke RIP reads the band around her tall black hat; there are even a couple of anarchists holding placards reading ‘Down with this sort of thing’ and ‘Careful now.’

When the march eventually moves off it is led by a man banging two metal dustbin lids together and a little further back in the column another man shouts into a megaphone.

‘What do we want?’


‘When do we want it?’


The responses are ragged and hesitant at first then grow stronger as people get into the spirit of things.

‘Council!’, shouts megaphone man, the ‘Boo!’ solicits from the marchers is loud enough to rattle windows on the other side of the street.

It is only as we reach Hanley Park that the column trudging good naturedly along behind a huge elephant mask made from crepe paper and garden cane that I realise quite how many people are taking part in the march. By the time we reach Stoke Station the unofficial figure has passed the two thousand mark, far in excess of anything the organisers had envisaged.

There are several people on the march who have been involved with the local political scene in one form or another for years, but most are just ordinary residents angry at being taken for granted by the council. Passing cars honk their support and even those motorists held up as we pass smile and wave; it is clear that the march has tapped into a deep well of resentment and given it a temporary focus.

Two questions continue to nag away at the back of my mind, will the council take any notice of this very public display of disapproval and can the organisers of the march keep the momentum going?

The answer to the former is, sadly, that they won’t, partly because the juggernaut of moving the Civic Centre is impossible to stop at this late stage; but mostly because the ruling Labour Group seems to operate under a sort of bunker mentality. They have hitched their fortunes to the ‘Mandate for Change’ and lack to imagination to depart from the rigid course it sets out.

Whether the organisers can keep the momentum going is less clear. They have to walk a fine line between opposing the move of the Civic Centre and supporting the regeneration of the city, it is also unclear how well the cheerful eccentricity of the campaign so far would stand up to the dark cynicism of day to day politics.

I hope they can though because they have managed with little in the way of resources to give a positive voice to public dissatisfaction with way politics works in this troubled city.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Temperate language is the difference between opinion and bigotry.

Gay couples are ‘clearly’ incapable of providing a ‘warm and safe environment’ in which to raise children. Not my opinion, we have Welsh Secretary David Jones to thank for these pearls of wisdom as expressed on television in the principality last week.

What he said in full was, ‘I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the supporting of children, which is clearly something that two same sex partners can’t do.’

Mr Jones isn’t, perish the thought, a homophobe, oh dear me no; he can’t be because he has ‘several people in my life who are important to me who are gay.’ He’d probably better check that because I don’t imagine they’d much want to be in the life of someone who has such opinions about their ability to form meaningful relationships.

Condemnation of what Mr Jones said came quickly with shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Jones calling his comments ‘profoundly offensive’ and Andrew White of Stonewall Cymru said he was ‘saddened that the Secretary of State for Wales should make such offensive and inaccurate remarks.’

Quite right too, what David Jones said was inaccurate and offensive, enough so to make the blood boil of anyone who happens to live in the twenty first century as opposed to the grimier corners of the eighteenth. There is nothing about their sexual orientation that prevents a gay couple from being good parents, or bad parents for that matter; like most parents they’ll probably just muddle through being a bit of both.

What really offends me is the way David Jones presents his nasty views as being shared by the ‘silent majority’, making him the voice of middle England, that mythical place of neat suburban gardens and quiet stoicism that is home to our innate national character. He is nothing of the sort; he is either a bigot or a cynic and his toxic opinions are all his own.

He may, as he claims, have received a number of letters on the subjects of gay marriage and whether or not gay couples should be allowed to adopt children, I’ll bet most of them were written in green biro on hospital notepaper. The silent majority haven’t been besieging the offices of their MPs on this issue because most of us have grown up enough to recognise that there is more than one kind of stable relationship.

What David Jones has done is seize on an issue trumpeted by a vocal minority and use it to try and stir up division. It is the same tactic this government uses when it sets strivers against skivers and public sector workers against those in the private sector; divide and rule in an age where ideas are absent.

When it comes to the non-controversy over gay marriage I give it maybe five years and the public mood will have shifted to the point where opposing same sex marriage will seem as arcane as wearing a powdered wig or believing in witchcraft. That’s what happens, we might not all live in perfect harmony, but we do all have to live together on a crowded island and so most people just get on with it and accept change.

Some people can’t of course, often because they have strong religious principles that even though I don’t share I am willing to treat with respect. In a democracy we are all free to say what we like so long as we use temperate language, David Jones didn’t do so, his comments were hurtful and inaccurate, they show him to be unfit to hold a ministerial position.

Ultimately what he said makes me tired and sad rather than angry. Tired of listening to comfortable politicians pretending to speak for the middle England I happen to live in and sad that our political system stifles the more diverse and interesting voices who could do so more accurately.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A forum run by a pushy celebrity won’t save the high street from oblivion.

Adapt or die is the stark message given to Britain’s high street retailers by the government following another round of high profile closures, including those of HMV, Comet and Jessops.

In response to growing concerns about the viability of the nation’s high streets the government is to set up a High Streets Forum, this will bring together leaders from government, business and local councils to build on the work done by retail ‘guru’ Mary Portas.

Local Growth minister Mark Prisk told Sky News on Thursday that reviving the high street depended on understanding the biggest threat to its survival, ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of online marketing represents,’ shopping online was, he said, ‘a growing part of our habits as consumers. We must make sure that high streets adapt.’

The forum will investigate ways of making the high street more attractive to investors such as improving parking, making it easier for landlords to change the use of a property from commercial to residential and giving high street projects priority when it comes to making planning decisions. There will also be more encouragement for ‘pop up’ stores, the trend of the moment; and the forum will also be able to make awards from a Future High Streets X Fund, the first of which will be announced in March.

When it comes to who killed the high street online shopping is only one of the suspects sitting nervously in the drawing room as the great detective explains how each one of them could have done it. Also culpable are councils that charge sky high business rates and impose ludicrous parking rules, supermarket chains that kill off small shops with their vast out of town stores and half a century of mass car ownership.

In reality all these things and more have done for the traditional high street with its friendly butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; I’m not sure that a ‘forum’, even one headed by the formidable Mary Portas will be able to turn things round.

In fact Portas herself may be a significant barrier to progress. She is undoubtedly a forceful character and has an excellent business brain. Unfortunately she is also a determined self promoter, her initial work with struggling high streets was part of a television programme and her abrasive approach rubbed many of the communities she worked with up the wrong way.

The other likely participants come with some pretty unwieldy baggage too. Retailers haven’t shown much in the way of strategic thinking when it comes to how, if at all, they operate on the high street. Most seem to be flapping around in a mad panic as they try desperately not to be the next Woolworths, amidst the resulting bellowing of wounded mastodons the voice of smaller retailers tends to get drowned out.

Local and national government has consistently backed the wrong horse when it comes to protecting town centres. In the sixties and seventies the big push was to build motorways, nobody thought about the business and communities that were left high and dry as a result. Later they showed the same blinkered enthusiasm for out of town retail parks; their conversion to defenders of the high street is late and unconvincing.

The one voice that won’t be heard in the deliberations of this new forum is perhaps the most important of all; that of local people. You might expect councils to play this role, but even the most limited involvement with local government soon teaches you that far too many councillors take their orders from the high command of their party rather than the people they represent.

As has happened so often before communities will have a solution imposed on them from above that in all probability will bear little relation to their needs and as a result will be doomed to fail. Despite what the bureaucrats might think our towns and cities aren’t created by planners with slide rules and pocket protectors, they’ve been shaped over centuries by the activities of their inhabitants.

Maybe that means that as it gets easier to shop from home over the internet fewer people will want to travel to physical stores in town; meaning the former high street will have to be reinvented. The only way of doing so in a sustainable way is through working with the people who will use it.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

If you pay peanuts you get apathy.

Workers in the UK are producing 2.6% less now than they were in 2008 according to a report published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). The report cites as causes low wages, a lack of investment in businesses and the misallocation of capital.

Other research suggests that the drop in productivity is due to labour hoarding, the demise of the financial sector and changes to the composition of the workforce. The IFS disagrees with these conclusions, but where would be the fun in experts agreeing with each other?

Anyway everyone agrees that workers in the UK produce 12.8% less now that they would if pre-recession levels of growth had been maintained. Not good for the GDP I suppose, but at least more people have kept their jobs during this recession that previous ones.

Helen Miller, a researcher for the IFS told that the government appears ‘to have learnt from some of the great mistakes of the 1980’s’ and that the benefit system was ‘doing a much better job of ensuring people remain in touch with the labour market.’ If you mean strong arming graduates into taking jobs at Poundland I suppose she’s right.

Actually you don’t need a report from the IFS or anyone else to know that if you pay your workers peanuts they tend to be apathetic; you just need to have had a real job. Sadly this is something our elected representatives mostly haven’t had, unless you count a couple of years spent as a ‘consultant’ between Oxbridge and finding a safe seat.

The same is true when it comes to the inescapable fact that without imagination on the part of investors you don’t get the new businesses and products necessary to increase productivity and drive economic growth.

Just because a thing is as plain as the nose on your face doesn’t, of course, mean that the people in charge will actually notice it. The government prefers to focus its efforts on appeasing a charmed circle of ‘wealth creators’ whilst ignoring the one group without which no business or country can hope to prosper; the workers.

The only way to build a strong economy is through a fair distribution of wealth and opportunity , an idea from which mainstream politicians recoil in almost comical horror, leaving the shouters and placard wavers of the far left as the only people willing to talk about redistribution.

To his credit Ed Milliband had a half hearted go on the eve of the Labour conference prattling earnestly about ‘predistribution’, but what he was trying to say was so hopelessly buried in obscure jargon nobody could understand what he was wittering on about. Nick Clegg has also made gestures towards recognising the need for redistribution talking about the need for a ‘John Lewis’ economy where workers have a stake in the success of businesses, but lacks the influence and the political courage necessary to turn a noble aspiration into a workable policy.

As for the Tories, they daren’t so much as think about redistribution, even though a workable case can be made for it from a right as well as a left wing perspective, for fear of a disapproving Thatcher shaped shadow blocking out the sun. The closest they have come is suggesting that workers might be given free shares in return for abandoning their employment rights; a total non-starter.

In place of the eminently sensible idea that the only way to get sustainable growth is through crating a situation where people work together and the rewards are shared out fairly we get thinking of the sort that once convinced people the earth was flat. A misplaced faith in the power of the market to solve every problem and a shameful timidity when it comes to investing in research and development combined with a mad belief that changing you mind to reflect changed circumstances is a sign of weakness.

Whilst this sort of thinking is prevalent we will never get sustained growth and will see our society grow more unequal and brutal by the year. Every one of the ‘great mistakes of the 1980’s’ is being repeated with an extra dollop of pain and chaos added on top.