Saturday 2 May 2020

Lockdown Day 40 - Road to Recovery Part 3

This post is part three of a series looking at how we build in benefits from the recovery from Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Part 1 can be found here

Part 2 can be found here

In this post, I look at how building community, reducing poverty and investing in public services and assets can all help in the recovery from this virus.

Without fundamental changes, our society is very fragile. Many political elites only serve themselves and those who fund them, the excessively rich hide their wealth. Many people are unquestioning of a diet of self-reinforcement of prejudices and hate and don't think beyond easy slogans and empty promises made at election time, and, to them, the vacuous stream of reality TV and celebrity gossip is often more important than the real issues in our society. Many people in our society are selfish and only think of what they can get for themselves and their material wealth. 

Those who struggle to feed themselves or can't find work, or have disabilities that hamper their lives are demonised as a whole based on a few rogue examples splashed across tabloid pages, and their lives are made harder and hungrier by a system that just ticks boxes and creates more hoops no matter how many times one jumps.

Can we build a better system, a more caring society, a more equal, tolerant one where all are valued and rewarded for the essential nature of their role to others, rather than one where going to a particular school, knowing the right people in the establishment, pushing the right buttons on a keyboard in front of a trading screen gets you ahead no matter what the cost to others?

This crisis has shown that those who often are in the lowest wage earning jobs in our economy are actually some of the most vital. For instance, care workers - I have worked as a support worker, with clients who had learning disabilities and a range of other issues including mobility and autism. The pay rate was pretty much minimum wage and over a number of years the terms and conditions had been eroded due to cuts in the amount of money paid from central government to local government and this was passed on in the form of cuts to the social care providers working with social services. Many people just think of elderly care when thinking of social care, or maybe children's homes, but a lot of money is spent on a huge range of vulnerable adults and children with a range of physical and mental limitations. 

In order to perform my role I had to undertaken a lot of training and retain a lot of knowledge, whether this was the various pieces of legislation governing the care of vulnerable individuals such as the Mental Health Act or Social Care Act, I had to know about Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, medication, person-centred planning, mental capacity as well as the more personal details of each client's care plan and how to care for them. I had to have empathy, patience, tolerance and was trained in a number of safe and legal restraint and defence techniques in order to prevent clients from either harming themselves or harming others, among many other things I could talk about. All this for the minimum wage and shifts that could be at any time of day or indeed sometimes night. Compared to some of the clients elsewhere that other homes looked after the clients I supported were relatively safe to look after. 

Whether you think about people in the food and retail sector, warehousing and delivery, workers in the NHS or public services that do the hardest and often dirtiest jobs, and indeed in the present crisis many at much greater risk of catching COVID-19, it is clear that the rewards for that labour are not sufficient for the value to society of these roles. This is especially when many in roles that effectively just involve moving a few numbers around and jetting around get telephone number salaries. The latter also often do not pay their fair share of tax whether by their own account or from within the companies they control. 

Over the past ten years, the money going into public services from central government has been cut and cut, and many vital services - whether it be social care, children's services, libraries and local council offices, youth services, education etc - I could go on - have lost thousands upon thousands of staff and local people have been left without many of the services that actually provided a social safety net, community spaces and services, education and support for the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society. The axe has disproportionally fallen on councils with high social deprivation, especially in former industrial areas. One of the greatest losses was the closure of a large number of Sure Start centres, in fact maybe one thousand of these, and these were focused on providing support to vulnerable and impoverished families with young children and had many benefits, not least in terms of the health of children from these backgrounds. 

Another area of cuts has been local bus networks which rely often on council subsidy to provide services into areas that may not be commercially viable but provide a vital link for many communities, especially for those who do not own a car, whether for travelling to nearby towns for education, shopping, banking or to attend appointments. In fact, when coupled with the fact that many job centres and local council offices have closed there have been examples like this one  where people are prevented by logistical issues caused by lack of bus services from getting work and being penalised by the Government for it. 

If you go back forty years, there were a huge number of manufacturing and primary industry jobs, often in local communities whose life often revolved around the solidarity and security provided by those industries. I saw the decline for myself in the mining area I grew up in. The mines shut, hundreds of local people thrown out of work, the shops, community venues and pubs they patronised lost money and often closed and there was a knock on effect into the ancillary industries linked to the mine. Sometimes - as happened around my area to a little extent, there were jobs able to be found in other areas, the Selby deep mine complex had just opened and several pupils in my class moved away to that area with their families. As more mines closed, people either moved away for work - the lucky ones - or languished in unemployment. Other industries such as textiles and clothing and indeed steelmaking were undercut by cheap imports and huge numbers of job losses happened in the 1980s as I was growing up. There was no work to be found for many and unemployment rose above three million. The heart was ripped out of so many communities. 

Now, I acknowledge that many of these industries had polluting effects, but in many cases these could have been solved by technology, regulation and appropriate incentives or taxation policies. Burning coal of course has contributed to climate change but some renewable technology was around in the 80s and 90s and many jobs could have been shifted into such manufacturing. However, "green issues" were often regarded back then as a fringe or "loony left" interest and the political will just wasn't there on so many levels to retrain and re-invest into the areas losing manufacturing to keep and grow skills and provide local work or indeed tackle climate and environmental issues. 

Supposedly, we were promised a "rebalancing of the economy", a "Northern Powerhouse", a "skills led recovery" and all the other vaporous slogans. This hasn't happened, and together with the punishing cuts to services, sanctions on the unemployed and disabled, inflation and a systematic demonisation  and undermining of the poorest, we now need wholesale systematic change and investment into our social fabric, employment and meaningful skills and work for many millions of people. 

Start at the beginning. The Sure Start model was to help the poorest families with life and parenting skills, with accessing education, health and wellbeing. It has been shown time and time again in a whole range of social care areas that early intervention and help saves money but more importantly improves outcomes for families. The closure of so many libraries has meant that many cannot now access computers - whether that is for education, job hunting, skills or networking with others - and indeed access to hard copy resources is important for skill building and child education. My children love reading and the time we both spent reading to them in their younger years has paid dividends I am sure in their educational abilities and interest and they loved going to the library. Reading to children also is meaningful family time - undivided attention and is relaxing and fun for parents too, a happy child is a secure and mentally calm one. The cuts to youth clubs have reduced the opportunities for young people to spend productive and positive time together and opportunities for those running those services to notice issues that would benefit from guidance and support. 

The cuts to the EMA - Educational Maintenance Allowance - prevented so many teenagers from accessing skills and college courses that would have provided them down the line with meaningful work and security of income. The punishing sanctions regime for people on unemployment benefit, together with cuts and dishonest assessments for people on disability benefits has resulted in people going without food and warmth, and at times shelter, and indeed has been a factor in many deaths.

Add into this the cuts I have mentioned above and it shows the need - in so many different areas - for a restoration of so many services, an investment in industrial strategy and public infrastructure and a need to give people a safety net of income that allows them to be able to rebuild their lives.

Local assets - whether that's early years, youth services, community activities for adults and families - are vital for community cohesiveness and giving people opportunity within their area to mix, support each other, gain new skills and take pride in their area. Connectivity, whether via public transport, or indeed internet connectivity is vital to ensure no one is left out or disadvantaged in accessing public services, education, work and lower cost products and services - often those who can't afford to be online have to pay way over the odds for such as gas and electricity services. 

The most vulnerable in our society need to be cared for and be able to have the quality of life - as far as they are able - as ourselves who often take the ability to go to the park, the shops or see friends for granted - this coronavirus crisis actually shows what we lose by these things being restricted. I recall one local authority that cut day centre provision in the early days of the austerity driven cutbacks, and the clients I met when at a supported living care site lost one of their opportunities to see friends and do enjoyable activities, and just simply get out of their house into the community - and this was further limited by staffing issues caused by not enough money being paid for the contract to look after these clients.

The sell off in the 1980s of council houses, and more importantly the lack of political and investment to replace them has created a huge shortage of affordable homes. Another factor are the buy-to-let incentives and removal of rent controls which has resulted in a boom in privately let properties, pushing the house prices in many areas for starter homes to unaffordable levels for local people, the same has been known for a long time about second homes in tourist areas. Not enough affordable housing is being built, whether public or private and basic economics shows that if there is a shortage that doesn't meet the demand, the price goes up. The profusion of television programmes and newspaper articles that have encouraged people to view properties as assets rather than family homes has also over time created price spikes and an asset bubble. Also, in Liverpool and elsewhere, large numbers of what were affordable terrace houses have been demolished rather than improved to modern standards, and the root causes of depopulation and deprivation that may have caused areas to decline and properties to become unkempt not tackled.  

If you have read this far you probably have some affinity with the sorts of future systems and practices and political structures I am talking about. You probably know the sorts of investments that are needed, whether in local public services, housing, educational services or transport. The changes that are needed are possible and we need to mobilise whatever connections and outlets we can to bring this better future about. Unfortunately, a fixation on ideology and slogans and playing to the base attitudes of some have meant that those parties and prospective MPs and councillors that would have wanted to, and would have tried to, make a difference haven't been able to gain power and make those changes. 

Don't be afraid to write to your elected representatives, join campaigns, get involved in community and environmental projects, raise concerns and work with others. Look at what you consume, evaluate what you need, what matters most in your life, what you can grow and provide for yourself and re-use and recycle. Support those in need how you can, with what you can and campaign for change and investment in your communities. Use social media for good and drown out, block and report the nastiness and hate on and off line, call out the micro-targeting and misinformation. Invest wisely in those companies that seek to mitigate climate change, produce environmentally friendly products, support local communities and treat workers ethically. Don't be afraid to question, to challenge, to correct with facts. 

It is do-able. Vested interests will seek to block, to delay, to water down, to silence and slander those who put themselves forward to make a better, fairer, more environmentally friendly future, but there are successes, there are positive changes that have happened that never seemed possible ten or twenty years ago.

We have this opportunity for change, not a situation you would wish on anyone, but there's hope too that it can be the catalyst for a better future for all of us.

In the part four of this essay I look at how investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency can play a part in powering the recovery from this virus. 

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