Saturday, 30 January 2010

Housing and Equality

Given my previous posts on the disastrous effects of wealth and income gaps on our society, I can hardly let the publication of the latest major report on inequality go by without a mention. Its headline finding is that the top 10% of wealth-owners in the UK are 100 times richer than the bottom 10%. While this is perhaps unsurprising, it should not be anything less than shocking. A society with such levels of inequality cannot avoid dysfunction. That is why I have become one of the first Parliamentary candidates to sign the Equality Pledge, the opening initiative by OneSociety and the Equality Trust to influence the forthcoming General Election. I hope many more sign in the coming days and weeks!

One of the major inequalities in our society is, of course, in the housing sector. With some people owning copious and expensive amounts of property, and most others unable to get anywhere near a secure tenancy in an affordable home, the playing field is painfully skewed. It's an area that I've always felt strongly about - and for that reason, I'm glad to be able to announce that I have recently been named as the Green Party's new national spokesperson on housing.

Those who are interested in lots of detail can always look at the full list of Green Party Housing Policies - but for those who want some reasons why we desperately need new and progressive thinking in this area, perhaps a few facts might help.

- There are still 2.5 million Council tenants throughout the UK.

- However, there are around 5 million people currently on council housing waiting lists.

- There are still almost 100,000 people in temporary accomodation, which is often totally unsuitable for their needs.

- 485,000 social homes have been sold over the past 10 years through Right To Buy.

- £141 million is being spent on new council housing this year. Sounds good - but it equates to only 2,000 homes.

- There are approximately 750,000 empty properties in the UK.

The Green Party is already doing a lot of work on housing issues - both in terms of ensuring that new and retrofitted properties meet stringent energy efficiency and fuel poverty standards, and in ensuring that ordinary people can afford to live in excellent properties in the first place. As this report on London's affordable housing crisis from the office of Jenny Jones AM illustrates, there is a very very long way to go on these issues. As the report explains, referring particularly to London but applying more generally to the country as a whole:

1. There has been a massive loss of social rented homes. Right to buy sales have far outstripped the building of new social rented homes, despite growing demand and a slightly improved delivery of social homes in recent years. This has led to the waiting list in London almost doubling within a decade.

2. The cost of buying a home has risen twice as fast as incomes. It now costs eleven times the average income to buy a home in London, putting home ownership far beyond the means of most households.

3. New housing delivery hasn’t met housing needs. House building has completely failed to slow the rising affordability gap in housing. In 2009 London only managed to build a little over half of the housing we needed.

I would say that with the financial crisis and recession, the delivery mechanism for affordable housing (building private sector housing for sale at market rates and subsidising social housing with the profits) has broken down. I would say that, except it is difficult for something that didn't work in the first place to break down. 'Affordable' housing has rarely been anything of the sort over the last decade. It is crucial that, in the next ten years, we ensure a great deal more housing that is affordable, well-built, and democratically controlled.

More on this subject anon. For now, if you are interested in getting involved, you could do a lot worse than to check out the Defend Council Housing website, or the London Coalition Against Poverty.

Friday, 22 January 2010

You Can't Incentivise Love

Admittedly there is always stiff competition, but a strong contender for 'idiotic policy of the month' has got to be the Tory plan for tax breaks for married couples.

Now clearly this is actually just an attempt to get a few 'family values' headlines and appease the social reactionary right - it can't be anything else, because it is so patently and transparently not going to have any positive real world effect. It will reduce tax income somewhat (brilliant plan in a financial crisis, that), and it might lead to a few more people who don't care about each other getting married for convenience - but that is about it.

And the reason is - you can't incentivise love. You can't reduce a committed and caring relationship, or family values, or community, or anything else that matters in this world, to a financial transaction. Nor should the state be judging what love is between consenting adults, or when it is acceptable and when it is not. How is it possibly right to extend tax breaks to married heterosexual couples, but not to LGBT people, or those in a long term relationship who do not feel that they want to marry? In Cameronland, is it really the case that there are no unhappy, problematic and destructive marriages....and no healthy, committed and positive relationships outside of the bonds of wedlock?

I'm glad to see that, in this at least, there is still a difference between the Conservatives and the other two largest parties. To their credit, Labour and the Lib Dems have both come out against these ridiculous plans, which would penalise anyone who chooses to relate to their partner in a way other than heterosexual marriage. I am deadset against any such policy, and will campaign against it in any way I can.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Faith in Action

Religion, and faith, have gotten a bad rap over the last few years. Too often, the popular understanding of religion has become synonymous with fundamentalism - the inability to see another point of view. Whether it is the popular media boiling the immense richness and diversity of the Islamic tradition down into 'mad mullahs', or Richard Dawkins continuing his reductionist and single-minded quest to insist that the worst aspects of some religious factions are intrinsic parts of all faith, we have been exposed to many reasons for thinking that religious belief is nothing but an irrational and destructive artifact of the past.

As a person of faith myself, I've never viewed religion through that lens - but if I needed reminders of the immense good that can and is being done by faith communities, I got two over the last week.

For a number of years, the Hackney Winter Night Shelter has been organised by a coalition of Christian churches in Hackney, all of them giving over their community spaces and organising volunteers for one night a week during the winter, to ensure that those who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets have a safe and warm place to stay. Some of my acquaintances might scoff at this - after all, they would assert, ameliorating current injustices doesn't change the system that causes them - but having done my first 2010 overnight shift this week, I couldn't disagree more. Not only are the churches doing incredibly valuable work in providing comfort and solace to some of the most vulnerable people in our society (in the particular case that I experienced, the church in question is St Paul's on Evering Road, under the wonderful direction of Rev Niall Weir) - but they are providing the foundational structures that any community needs to survive. The kind of mutual aid and voluntary compassion, unmediated by money or desire for profit, in which lie the seeds of a new world. I certainly look forward to doing more shifts over the coming months, and would encourage anyone living in Hackney to think about volunteering too.

Of course, there is never enough being done in this area - and while the Winter Night Shelter does great work, North London Action For The Homeless has seen its advice funding from the Council completely cut for the forthcoming financial year. Over £11,000 for advising homeless and vulnerably housed people has gone - putting at risk one of the very few, and vitally important, independent advice services for the people whom NLAH serves. I volunteer with NLAH on Monday lunchtimes and am part of the Management Committee, and have seen first hand the good work that they do - also hosted by the St Paul's Church Community Hall, without which the provision of good meals, compassionate company and independent advice would be so much more difficult. As I understand it, NLAH was originally founded on the initiative of the Jewish community in Hackney - another idea catalysed by religious faith.

And then, this Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend the induction of Andy Pakula as the new Minister of the Newington Green Unitarian Church, one of the oldest 'dissenting' churches in London, with a 300 year old tradition of feminism, anti-slavery, advocacy for economic justice and concern for ecological sustainability. The service was wonderful, and left me with an abiding sense of what a liberal, non-judgemental, all-embracing and life affirming religious belief can look like. It didn't hurt that I also found out that Andy and the congregation have refused to carry out any weddings at the Church until LGBT people have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples in this country!

Religious faith can be an enormously powerful catalyst and foundation for social change. It can bring people together across boundaries, helping to create the kind of communities of compassion and voluntary service that we so desperately need. Yes, it can also create intolerance and rigidity and fundamentalism - but it doesn't have to. People of progressive beliefs, whether religious or secular in their origin, must work together to bring on a world where "Justice will flow like a river - and righteousness like a never failing stream."

Use of the photo above does not of course imply any endorsement of my campaign - it just made me smile and I thought might illustrate my point!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Society and Centralisation

Catchy title, eh?

The reason for it is all of this snow, which you may have noticed about the place over the last week or two. You see, there's nothing like a bit of extreme weather to reveal just how rickety and shaky our systems of transportation, energy and food production really are. Honest, I was going to post something positive and upbeat this time - but there's been evidence all around that our society really can't deal with anything that disrupts business as usual. Given the increasing reality of climate change (bringing with it more extreme weather events), peak oil and the financial crisis, it wouldn't be responsible to just gloss over the inability of our economic and logistical systems to cope.

Which, of course, is what most politicians have been busy doing. According to Labour, everything is fine, rosy, and will be back to normal soon. Meanwhile, the Tories and Lib Dems criticise Labour for not responding quickly enough or ordering enough grit - failing to see that the collapse of our transport network, not to mention the panic buying of basic supplies, reveal a far deeper issue with our logistical systems than just a failure of Government competence.

Centralised systems, particularly ones that rely on large-scale and complex distribution networks (such as supermarkets, or fossil fuel energy, or even salt and grit laying), don't tend to cope well with shocks or sudden disruption. Because everyone is reliant on only one or two methods of distribution, there is little redundancy or back-up to call on. Shops which are reliant on a relatively predictable pattern of purchasing and supply, on uninterrupted energy for refrigeration, and so on, can't meet crises with any kind of Plan B.

In contrast, of course, communities which rely on a diverse range of different food sources, which generate at least some of their energy locally and from renewable sources, and which have a sense of solidarity and togetherness, tend to do much better in such situations. It's the old triumph of variety over monoculture, and shouldn't be surprising. What should alarm us is how far we have allowed many crucial aspects of our lives and communities fall under the sway of gigantic near monopoly businesses, rather than controlling them locally.

Greens have recognised the importance of relocalisation for many years, and more recently a spate of community based initiatives have begun to emerge, making much the same point and attempting to relocalise control of vital services. Transition Town Stoke Newington is just one of many of these kinds of initiatives across the borough - their work couldn't be more important. Greens on Hackney Council, and in Parliament, will be striving to give them all the policy support and back-up that is required for such a wide-scale programme of community reinvigoration.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Pessimism, Honesty, and Politics

In progressive politics, it is customary to try to cast everything in a positive light. As we saw in the USA's last Presidential election, people respond to hope - and the politics of fear and dismay tend to be the domain of those who want society to stay exactly as it is, and are opposed to change. It makes sense for those who seek change to portray the future as inevitably better, brighter, easier than the present.

Unfortunately, of course, it's not that easy or simple. When we are being honest, Greens need to admit that society will change over the next few decades, and not inevitably for the better. As John Michael Greer eloquently sets out in his book, The Long Descent, climate change is not the only crisis that our society currently faces - the peak of oil production is also approaching, and will have massive and far-reaching effects on our economy and way of life.

Following the textbook of political presentation, it would be most sensible to emphasise the positive aspects of a low-carbon transition - and these certainly exist. The problem is, the benefits of transition begin to recede the longer you leave them - while the negative impacts of transition increase for every month we fiddle and fail to prepare for adaptation of the way we run our economy and society. We currently rely on massive injections of fossil fuels - and they won't last forever. As this brief primer on peak oil facts illustrates, they probably won't even last for decades.

With that being the case, and with the obvious and complete lack of government awareness that currently rules policy-making, it is imperative for Greens and other radicals to sound the alarm - not panicking, not hectoring - but being in no doubt about the seriousness of the situation we face. The decisions we make in the next few years may well condition the conflicts, problems and quality of life which we experience for the next hundred. We owe it to future generations, and to ourselves, to get it right.