April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
After meeting the four mums in Camden leading their local campaign to save childcare services, we have the video.
April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
To accompany this blog from last week, the video from our visit to Community Links in East London.
April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Caroline Lucas is one of the most active advocates for the Robin Hood Tax in Westminster. Where other politicians have been a bit slower on the uptake, she has been describing the need for the financial sector to pay their fair share for years. As MP for Brighton Pavillion, she knows how the money raised from the tax could help her constituents – particularly in access to housing, a major issue Brighton.
As leader of the Green Party, Caroline is especially aware of the need to build a green economy and to create green jobs for the 1 million unemployed young people in the UK today. “It’s so obvious!” she explains when we interview her on North Street outside a Barclay’s branch, a bank that paid only 1% corporation tax in 2009.
With so many spending cuts being announced across the country, Caroline sees it as vital that we demonstrate alternatives on how the money could be raised – with the Robin Hood Tax being one of them. As crowds gather in the evening sun on Brighton beach, we leave her just in time to get back to her constituency surgery.
April 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
Taking the Docklands Light Railway past the bright lights of Canary Wharf takes you deep into the borough of Tower Hamlets, to Newham. It’s one of the most deprived areas in the UK, with seven out of ten children living in a low-income family. We’ve come to visit a youth centre run by Community Links, one of the country’s biggest community organisations.
We walk in and a tall, shy-ish guy is moving around the room speaking to the others to quiet them down. I assume he’s a member of staff as he clearly has the trust and respect of the group, though it turns out he’s simply one of the older kids. Riki, on the right of the photo below, is passionate about the centre and about the need for a place where young people like him can build up skills and relax. He’s keen to explain that every young person in the building has achieved some sort of award, and is recognised for contributing to the centre. Many of them were involved in making a music video remake of ‘Mercy Me’ which was addressed to David Cameron to try and explain the reality of living in a place like Newham.
And the reality is that there just isn’t anything to do. The bus winding through roads with boarded up houses had taken us past the occasional corner shop and fried chicken joint, a small church or mosque, with even pubs thin on the ground. When the kids talk about being ‘on the street’, that’s literally what they mean. This youth centre, open only two nights a week, is one of the few places they can come to.
Many of the youth workers have themselves been involved in the centre as young people, knowing exactly what kinds of issues young people are dealing with. One of the staff we meet, Jason, is featured in this wonderful short film about the organisation’s staff.
Although the work here is very different from the advocacy NGO world that I’m used to, I recognise some of the tools used to help young people connect and work together. One youth worker describes how once a pupil is allowed back into school after a fixed-term exclusion, she asks everyone else to sit in a circle around them. One by one, every young person says something really positive about the person sitting in the middle. Slowly, the walls of anger and resistance and protection start to disappear, and these hard young people start to melt, as trust and friendships are built.
Precisely this is what makes these centres so special – young people from different schools, different ethnic backgrounds, different worlds, can come together and have fun, learn and be together. From what I saw, although part of the reason to be there for an evening may have been the drum kit, basketball hoop or dance space – the real reason is to be in a safe space where healthy relationships can be built.
Yet already three Community Links centres have had to close due to the cuts. More are scheduled to shut their doors – including the one we visited. The council, which has supported the youth clubs, is being forced to make cuts to the tune of £70 million. A Robin Hood Tax would pay for that in 1.5 days.
Young people are told they can go to the next centre, two or three stops away on the DLR. But that means leaving a safe patch of the city, and going into another ‘postcode zone’, where the threat of violence means that for most teenagers, going there in the evening is impossible.
I ask them what they think about people working in the nearby financial sector taking home six-figure bonuses, secretly hoping they’ll show anger or resentment.
“Fair play to them” says Aaron, the guy in blue. “I’m sure they worked hard to get the grades. Yeah, fair play.”
But of course the whole thing is entirely unfair. Aaron and the others have never had the privileges of a first-class education, or parent-supported internships, that the overwhelming majority of those inside Canary Wharf have had. How can we afford to be getting rid of some of the only places where aspirations and skills are built in the face of such inequality?
As we leave the centre, a police van and the fire brigade pull up to the Leisure Center next door. Someone has tried to set it on fire.
April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
On Monday night, we co-hosted an event with the new economics foundation to ask exactly that question. A full write-up by Kathleen Murray here, and the three speaker presentations are below for your delectation. In Fink Club tradition – each speaker is strictly kept to six minutes, so you might just hear Andrew Simms’ time-stopping bell…
April 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
Before I started working on this campaign, I hadn’t realised how much potential there was for a Robin Hood tax to be introduced this year. Although we know Osborne is not a fan – a tax is looking increasingly likely in the Eurozone countries, with Germany and France leading the charge. There are now seventeen countries in the zone, meaning a Robin Hood tax would raise tens of billions each year to go towards development and climate financing, as well as public services at home. As this would be introduced, other countries that already have some sort of financial transaction tax – like Brazil and South Africa – would then be likely to join them.
In other developments, President Sarkozy of France has put Bill Gates in charge of preparing a report and recommendations on innovative financing mechanisms on behalf of the G20, whose voices will be crucial on pressuring Western governments to make sure money from the tax goes to developing governments. Bill Gates is yet to be convinced, and the US is opposed to implementing the tax themselves – though not actively blocking others from doing so. Other G20 countries like Korea, Australia and India have already got a Stamp Duty (like the UK), and so will hopefully play a progressive role at the table.
The G20 meeting is in November this year, so over the next couple of months we’ll see an increased pressure building – starting this week with our road tour!
April 5, 2011 § 3 Comments
We’ve heard from politicians about the squeezed middle class, but who are they?
On Monday, we met Martina, Sarah, Lucy and Inka, four mums with young children at the Caversham Children’s Centre in Kentish Town in North London. As parents picked up their toddlers after their working days, we joined the mums for a cup of tea at home to find out how life has changed over the last few years since the financial crash.
For young families the cost of daycare is astonishing. Lucy explained that per child, per month – the cost comes in at roughly £1500. For those under a certain income bracket, this is reduced to around £800. Nonetheless, for single parents particularly, these prices are getting out of reach. But what has really brought these women into action is the threatened closure of the centre itself.
Sarah grew up just around the corner from where she lives now. Two of her sisters are within five minutes walking distance, and on the way to her house from the centre, we walk past both her primary and secondary school. Now a mum to a two-year old boy with her partner Diego, she describes the lack of places for toddles in day care centres across the area.
“I’d been on the waiting list since before he was born. Just three weeks before I had to return to work I found out that he’d got a place – it was such a relief. There are lots of young families here, and all of them rely on these services because nearly all parents work to be able to afford the rent or mortgage. But now, with this centre closing and more closing soon, there aren’t going to be any more places for new families. All the other centres that we’re supposed to be moving to are already over-subscribed. How are new mums going to be able to go back to work? They’ll never leave the waiting list!”
One of the mums explained that without the centre, she is likely to have to leave her job in order to care for her son at home. “That will mean we’ll have to move away from the area, to somewhere much cheaper. But that means moving away from friends and family, and leaving behind the good schools in the area too.”
These are middle-class families with middle-class aspirations and expectations. They work in the media, or in IT, or as teachers. They want their kids to be friends with other children from all types of backgrounds. “I think that’s what everyone wants”, says Lucy. “You expect their lives to be better than yours, but I’m losing that hope to be honest.”
For these families, it’s no longer just the costs of childcare either. “Food prices have gone through the roof – I only buy special offers now. I feel like my mother in the 70’s – I’m the most thrifty person I know!” says one. They accept that the cheap credit of the last couple of decades was abnormal, but ask why they – and not the banks – are now being punished.
“I was never political – to be honest, I didn’t really care much. We didn’t have to!” explains Lucy. Now though, they’ve organised protests, leafletting, council meetings, articles in the local paper – a group of families even joined the March for the Alternative through the streets of London last month.
And they’ve had some success. The campaign to Save Camden’s Children’s Services has already managed to extend the centre’s services by six months, but the council says it will have to close in August, following orders from government to cut £90 million.
There are moments when we look at each other nearly surprised by the fact that we’re having this conversation. We talk about the price of private child care – some of them used to have it, but can no longer afford it. “Only really rich people can afford that these days”, I’m told.
After nearly an hour, the kids start clambering onto laps and it’s time for us to go.
As we walk out the door, I try to tell them how important their campaign is. “You’re the ones the MPs really fear” I say, “not the black bloc – you are their voters”. They look a little bewildered – and perhaps a little emboldened.
April 5, 2011 § 3 Comments
In her early 70’s, Sister Christine looks like just about any older lady you’d see on the street. Raised in Ireland, she has lived in Poplar in the East End of London for the last 41 years. She runs Neighbours in Poplar, a grassroots community project that brings together local residents at bingo nights and Sunday lunches, and South Poplar & Limehouse Action For Secure Housing, an advocacy group working on social housing in a place that has become a ‘no-man’s land’. Both are facing cuts. The small church and community centre where Christine is based has been overshadowed by the towers of finance in Canary Wharf and the constant drone of airplanes flying in and out of City Airport for the last 25 years.
“That’ll be them heading back to Frankfurt and New York” she says as the pace of flights picks up towards the end of the day.
The contrast is stark. Families live with 3 or 4 children in one-bedroom flats, and primary schools have children arriving yet to be potty trained. These communities are overlooked by the banks that operate in a virtual tax haven filled with eager young graduates like so many of my peers – all of them driving up the prices of local rents and pushing local communities further to the margins of society.
“When the developers first came all those years ago, we believed what they promised us. We believed there’d be jobs for local people, that the traffic would stay on the main road, that wealth would trickle down to families living here. We accepted the mass clearing of social housing because they promised us newer and better homes. None of that has come true. We’re not so foolish now.”
Local communities are ignored completely by banks and their workers. Neighbourliness is in short supply. Little attempt is made by the financial institutions to support community work; they favour the en-vogue charitable causes with recognisable brands that will feature prominently in this year’s CSR report.
But Sister Christine has been fighting for her community since the 1970’s and knows that amongst her neighbours lies power.
“What I struggle with most is helping people realise that they are the experts of this area – not the planners or the commuters. In a planning process they’re voices are valid and must be heard.” As she speaks, I can see that she’s losing her ‘interview’ face and becoming genuinely incensed.
She describes a billboard that advertises new luxury flats being built among social housing that has been left to fall apart. “I want to go and put on a hoodie and graffiti it”, she says.
But it’s not just money. “With everyone living in eggboxes, nobody here has time to reflect on where we’re going, or the meaning of where we are. If the developers ever threatened our last piece of open green space, I know that the women of the estate would lie down in front of those bulldozers. I don’t know about the men, mind, but I know the women would.”
I ask her at the end of our time together what gives her hope amongst all this struggle. She smiles, mentions the need for a sense of humour, and says,
“As long as there are people, there is hope.”
- Relationships take time. Working with a community needs someone like Sister Christine to build the trust, to understand the local tensions, and to build their confidence.
- Radicalism lies at the grassroots. Never again will I misjudge someone’s willingness to take direct action by their age or perceived role in society!
- I (we) live in a bubble. I found it really difficult not to be personally indicted by some of what she said. My life is so much closer to those in Canary Wharf than it is to her community’s. As change-agents, is it possible to live in that duality?
Hope this was useful, thanks for reading.