Good news from Barton

I’m proud of my estate.  In various ways (some covered in previous posts here) the Government is doing its damnedest to turn our community into a basket case, but that’s not going to happen – and it’s first and foremost because of what Barton people are doing that it’s not going to happen.

I’d like to highlight a couple of projects on the Barton estate that are doing really good work.  Both come, in different ways, from within the community rather than being good ideas delivered from outside.

 

The Thrive team of three social workers has been going since the beginning of last year.  They’re currently helping about 80 children and young people in Barton.  Getting a girl back to school who had not attended for a year and succeeding in getting a young lad who’d been causing trouble to stop doing that and apply to college are examples of the fruits of their individual mentoring of kids and young people from the estate.

They also run communal activities, above all their allotment.  Last Saturday I attended the annual Thrive fundraising dinner, cooked and served by the kids themselves, with fruit and vegetables from the allotment and a lamb pie that wouldn’t have disgraced the Fishes in North Hinksey (for anyone who hasn’t eaten there recently, this is high praise).  It was particularly good to hear from some of the kids themselves how Thrive was helping them and contributing to Barton.

What’s particularly good is that the team are based in Barton and have a house and of course an allotment that provide hubs for all kinds of activities.  With the Tory County Council withdrawing youth services from the areas where they’re actually needed and concentrating their remaining youth workers in “hubs” where there is an appreciable risk that (despite their best effort and outreach plans) they’ll be massively overworked and desk-bound, this is very much needed.

Now the slightly controversial bit.  The Thrive team are very successful youth workers, and there’s no disguising the fact that they’re Christians and strongly motivated by their faith.  They work for a Christian charity, “Innovista” (please change the name, guys, it sounds like a double glazing installer).

This is where some people might get out the stoup of anti-holy water, if there is such a thing, and start to mutter “ne vas corrumpatis” under their breath.  But would you object if your NHS nurse had decided to work in the NHS rather than a better-paid private hospital for reasons involving religious conviction?  I see no problem, provided that evangelism isn’t part of what they do as youth workers, which it isn’t.  They’re strongly committed to working with and for people of all faiths and none.  What they’re doing should in my view be publicly provided as part of a comprehensive youth service, which no doubt would attract people motivated by faith to work for it.  But the ConDems are moving as fast as their lipid feline Thatcherite legs can carry them in the opposite direction, the Thrive team are doing something there’s a desperate need for, and I for one am very thankful for that.

 

I was also delighted to have the opportunity, again last Saturday, to watch the karate club in action at a session for children and young people in Barton Neighbourhood Centre, which I was pleased that our excellent Labour MP also attended.  Oxford Sport and Traditional Martial Arts, to give them their full name, are the best martial arts club in the region and have a number of members who compete at international level.  What’s really good about them, though, is that they provide activities for kids – anti-bullying strategies, how to escape if a stranger grabs you, building confidence and fitness – in a variety of places and especially in Barton.  Phil Patrick, who runs the club, lives on the estate and is very keen to get local children involved, and to go into schools and run classes and sessions.  The club has remained active on the estate although it has better financial prospects elsewhere.Within its financial limits, it can waive fees for kids whose parentsa can’t afford them, and of course its anti-bullying and other one-off activities are free.

I had the opportunity to speak with teachers, parents and children and can see how the club has built confidence and health, and can do so with kids from difficult backgrounds who are otherwise quite withdrawn.  I’ve also seen how it brings together kids from different backgrounds and origins in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect.  It’s a very good thing for the estate and chronically short of cash.  I’ll be giving it a grant from my ward budget to enable more of the basic stuff to be advertised and offered to local kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford anything of the kind.

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Save Dale Farm!

Anyone on the register for social housing, or who takes an interest in current affairs, will know that this country is in the throes of a housing crisis.  The bottom has dropped out of the construction market and the Government has helped the forces of stagnation by removing most funding for new homes.  Meanwhile they are restricting people’s entitlement to housing benefit to an extent that is likely, if it’s allowed to continue, to result in the “social cleansing” of high-cost cities like Oxford – as even Boris Johnson was willing to say before his old Eton chums reminded him he wasn’t supposed to.  Local Government is tearing its collective hair out trying to come up with ways of dealing with the inevitable rise in homelessness, housing insecurity and exploitation by landlords.

So imagine you’re a Councillor (if anyone who isn’t ever reads this!) and think how you’d react to the following.  A group of Travellers with nowhere to stay except lay-bys (which of course causes complaints) buy an abandoned scrapyard, some way from the nearest residential area, clean it up and form a housing co-operative.  They build nice little bungalows with gardens and the presence of extra children enables the local primary school to stay open.  They even pay for the road surfacing themselves.

Good, you’re thinking – there’s 300 people we don’t have to worry about any more.  If part of the development needs retrospective planning permission (most of it having permission already) it’s highly likely to get it as being beneficial to the public, a great improvement on what was there before, and with no adjoining properties to be affected.

This happy situation exists in Essex, and the development’s called Dale Farm.  But the above isn’t what Tory-run Basildon Council has done.  Instead they’ve chosen to spend a third of this year’s total (non-HRA) budget in an effort to evict the people of Dale Farm from their own land, have the police forcibly remove them beyond the Council’s boundaries, and pull the houses down on the part of the site that doesn’t have planning permission.  They’re even planning to tear up the road surfaces.

That’s right, a third of the Council’s annual budget.  At a time when all Councils are struggling to make ends meet after savage Government cuts, Basildon Council are spending millions on demolishing the homes of people they will then have a legal duty to house under homelessness legislation.  Council services in Basildon are being cut beyond the level of sustainability.  All because of the alleged “principle” of planning permission – or perhaps for an even less creditable reason.

Over the years Travellers have gradually been forced off the road by the diminishing number of pitches, and the situation has now been made desperate by the Government’s scrapping of Councils’ obligations.  Tory Councils like Basildon are absolutely refusing to provide pitches, and at the same time making any permanent alternative impossible.  While 80% of all planning applications across the country get permission, 90% of all applications from Travellers are refused.

The company that used the site of Dale Farm as a scrapyard didn’t have planning permission for some of their commercial activities either, and the Council issued enforcement notices in 1992.  When the company abandoned the site nine years later, they remained unenforced.  The difference in the Council’s attitude now is, it has to be said, quite striking.

“Discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers appears to be the last ‘respectable’ form of racism”, as the Commission for Racial Equality pointed out in 2004.  The Government seems determined to make things easier for the racists, a fact obvious enough to attract UN intervention!  The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for the eviction of the people of Dale Farm to be suspended as “Travellers and Gypsies already face considerable discrimination and hostility in wider society and the Committee is deeply concerned that this could be worsened by actions taken by authorities in the current situation and by some media reporting on the issues”.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has even offered to mediate, but said the British Government made it clear he would not be welcome.  Indeed the Home Office are paying some of the police costs, though most are to be charged to the Council and will come out of Council Tax.

So what Basildon seems to have is a Tory Council run by raving lunatics who are willing to destroy the Council’s services and infrastructure and shame Britain throughout the world in order to deprive 300 innocent people of their homes.  They have decreed that all the people of Basildon must suffer, so they can make the Travellers suffer.  Everyone must make sacrifices so that injustice can be done.

Evidently, to Basildon Council, the opportunity to evict Travellers is more important than anything else.  If this strange combination of barely veiled racism and political obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn’t appeal to you, have a look at www.dalefarm.wordpress.com.

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Zzzzzzz…Eh? What?

Wake up, Mike.

Though there’s quite a queue of things I’d like to prose on about, perhaps I should ease myself back into blogging by taking a nice light topic.  Today, therefore, I’ll write in praise of Oxford’s Town Hall, the building that as a City Councillor I probably spend too many of my evenings in.

Designed by Henry Thomas Hare and built between 1893 and 1897, our civic building is named synecdochically for its great hall, used for concerts and public events: originally the building also contained the City’s main library, criminal court and police station as well as the Council Chamber and offices.  It demonstrates the typical late Victorian mismatch of variously, often eclectically, derivative styles with new modern building techniques – this was the time when they were building the first skyscrapers in Chicago, after all.  Somehow it manages to make a success of it.

Structurally a sound and sensible example of Victorian engineering, on the surface it is chimneyed and chambered, pillared and pinnacled, tricked out and turreted, like a kind of municipal Gormenghast.  It has four stone dragons, three verdigrised spires and six little belfries (but no bells).  There are two balconies (from one of which general election results were once shown,  written on boards, to the masses standing in St Aldate’s below; the other apparently purposeless) two vaulted ceilings, a florescence of ornamental plasterwork, a plethora of stained glass and a grand marble staircase.

In a sentence, the whole building revels in decorative superfluosity.  John Betjeman said it was more in the style of T. G. Jackson (the architect of the University’s Exam Schools, and of course, I can’t forbear to add, an Old Wadhamite) than anything by Jackson himself, and perhaps this is the most sensible thing that can be said about its style.

There’s a café, an art gallery and the City Museum, entered through the doorway to the old central library (books now moved to the Westgate Centre) over which a stone relief tells visitors that “Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for abilities”.  This is a quotation from Francis Bacon, as hopefully the first visitors would have been able to discover inside – though I’ve been unable to discover what position, if any, Bacon took on the vexed Oxford Comma Question!

The huge main hall (seating 742) with its organ and galleries looks like it’s strayed from the Blackpool Winter Gardens, and always seems a little bewildered to find itself occupied by Oxford City Councillors at civic events.  By contrast, the high-ceilinged and (presumably deliberately) gloomy courtroom retains its accompanying cells, where those found guilty were held until taken to Oxford Prison, then nearby at the old castle – occasionally to be hanged.

Underneath the Town Hall is a mediaeval cellar that serves as the Plate Room; this is all that remains in situ of the Guildhall built in 1292 as the centre of Oxford’s civic life, on land stolen from two Jewish merchants, Moses ben Isaac and David of Oxford.  Two years previously, all Jews had been expelled from England by the aggressive and unsavoury Edward I (the monarch addressed by the eponymous Bard in Gray’s poem:

Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!

Confusion on thy banners wait:

Though fanned by conquest’s crimson wing,

They mock the air with idle state!

If the crown fits, wear it).

Incidentally, David of Oxford was famous for his library, and Moses of Oxford – the mainstay of the Oxford Talmudic academy which is thought to have collaborated with the scholars of the nascent University on the wonderful thirteenth-century Hebrew/Latin Old Testament manuscripts now in Corpus library – may have been born on the site of the Town Hall.  So there is a case to be made, albeit a speculative one, for saying that it was here that scholarship in Oxford really began.

It’s the wealth of detail, though, that makes one actually enjoy the Town Hall (I realise this may sound a little cracked – still, it has to be said).  Take the heraldic animal heads in relief on the drainpipes at the front (elephants and beavers, the supporters of the City coat of arms*) or the odd bits and pieces transferred from earlier civic buildings, like the 17th Century fireplace surround in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour.  How unfortunate so many cities are to have municipal buildings which are undoubtedly functional, but lack those things that make civic life worth living simply because no-one could possibly need them!

The City motto’s pretty much inescapable throughout the Town Hall: Fortis est veritas [et praevalebit] – “Strong is truth, and it will prevail” (“If any care that it prevail, or not” added Oxford poet Arthur Hugh Clough sardonically).  This saying’s especially prominent in the Council Chamber, perhaps to make sure it catches the eye of Members giving serious contemplation to any big fat porkies other than the excellent sausages served at Council Tea during the break.

Straying a few yards up the road, the reason for the lack of bells in any of the Town Hall’s little belfries is of course that Oxford, unusually for anywhere outside Italy, has its own free-standing civic campanile.  To be honest, we cheated a bit: when the City Church of St Martin was demolished for road widening in the 19th Century, its deconsecrated bell tower was taken over by the Council as a source of easy income from tourists willing to pay to climb up it.  The bells and ornamental clock were kept, and every quarter-hour the two little bells on the outside are struck with hammers by fibreglass legionaries.  The wooden originals are under the Town Hall in the City Museum.

* I’ll conclude with a footnote, because I can’t resist it.  Elephants and beavers in civic heraldry represent strength and industry respectively, but on Oxford’s coat of arms both of them look a bit bizarre.  The elephant is shown black with a white heraldic fur pattern (“counter ermine”) while the beaver, as is traditional, is a slightly sickly green – and in the version on the drainpipes it seems to have acquired tusks.  Such are the vagaries of the Middle Ages, as interpreted by the Late Victorians.

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Give us a place to stand

One of the main reasons I first decided to stand for the City Council back in 2008 was seeing (and experiencing) the housing problems here in Oxford.  These are common to all cities to some extent, but Oxford is the most expensive place in Britain relative to average earnings (house prices peaked at over thirteen times mean annual income in 2008; the last I heard they were down slightly to twelve and a half times – almost certainly cancelled out by the rise in the price of so many other things relative to earnings).  Rental prices are so astronomical that despite the high house prices, the very dodgiest buy-to-let landlords can make a killing without having to do anything to make their properties attractive.

Please understand that I am certainly not cursing people en bloc who rent houses – but the effect of the free market in housing that Thatcher did so much to encourage is to attract crooks to the business and allow them to flourish.  It is ironic that Thatcher, who claimed to be fostering a revolution in favour of owner-occupation by introducing the right to buy Council houses, actually made it much harder to buy your own house, at least in places like Oxford where demand exceeds supply, by allowing buy-to-let landlords to take over more of the available housing and so driving up house prices.  In consequence Oxford is an artificial, though very durable, house price bubble, with both purchase prices and (especially) rental prices well above both those in the surrounding area and those in the nearest equivalent cities.

Needless to say, this would not concern the Tories much.  The more prosperous working-class people in Oxford, to whom they once appealed, have thoroughly learned the lesson that they are the party of the rich.  It is almost unbelievable now that they used to have  lots of Councillors in Oxford.

Housing deprivation is a major cause, if not the major cause, of poverty and social problems in our City.  So many people are trapped in a succession of insecure and horrible accommodation that prevents them from living the full lives they can and deserve to live.  And the Government is pursuing a line of policy that couldn’t be more precisely calculated to make things worse – capping Housing Benefit; even within that calculating housing costs in Oxford according to those across Oxfordshire, most of which is far less expensive; stopping the Labour Government’s as yet very tentative programme of new Council house building; and removing Homes and Communities Agency funding for new homes.  Now they are making more or less vague proposals about localised planning, meaning more power to wealthy people in areas where there is land to spare to prevent the building of social housing for people who desperately need it.  It’s not surprising that the number of new homes (of any kind) completed in Oxford East in the last quarter was down to fifteen.

A bit before the General Election I met a nice couple in East Oxford who were expecting a baby (she was born a few weeks later).  They were living in a single room in a house full of strangers, with a shared kitchen and a shared bathroom and toilet.  I’ve met many people in similar situations, but that couple stick out in my memory.  If the Condems had had their way already, that child would be growing up there; as it was, under a Labour Government, the Labour Council helped them find somewhere decent and affordable to live.  But the stock of decent and affordable homes is inadequate and being ever further squeezed by those evil twins, the Free Market and Government Policy.

The statistics bear out my anecdotal evidence.  At the last census in 2001, 6,100 households in Oxford were living in overcrowded conditions, and ten years later it’s almost certainly more.  Oxford has the highest number of properties without a bath, shower or toilet in the South-East of England.  There are now nearly 5,000 households on the waiting list for social housing, a much higher figure than in any of the surrounding local authority areas or the regional and national averages.

This is a genuinely scandalous infringement of people’s fundamental right to a decently livable home, and such a waste of potential.  The amount of time, money and energy wasted by people on trying to find somewhere to live, trying to cope with the place they find and then moving again, and by the City Council and other agencies on advising people about finding somewhere to live and picking up the pieces when they become homeless, is huge.  When I say “wasted” of course, I mean that though the effort and the spending are absolutely necessary in the current situation (and despite the masive cuts to the funding we receve from the Government the Council has increased spending on advice, especially housing and debt advice, and homelessness provision) there is no fundamental reason why, in one of the richest countries in the world, it should be necessary.

This simply can’t carry on.   Something has to break – either the system or the people who have to live under it.  The very best of advice and emergency provision, essential as they are, are like bandages on a wound with an internal cause.  This cause is the existence of a market in housing that does not serve need because it is shaped by lack of supply and by far too high a proportion of private rented to social rented and owner-occupied housing.  Consequently the private housing market does not consist simply of more prosperous people who buy and students and other temporary residents who rent, but also of many thousands of people who live and work permanently in Oxford and can’t afford to buy a home here (only 53.7% of households in Oxford are owner-occupiers compared with the national average of 68.1% and the South-East average of 73.2%; 17.5% of Oxford households live in private rented accommodation compared with the national and South-East average of 8.8%).  Increasingly they can’t afford to rent a home here either.

Lack of decent housing corrodes communities.  Frequent moving around prevents people from forming local personal relationships and gives them little interest in improving the area or their own home – especially if it’s one of the semi-derelict brick boxes so often offered in the private market.  This is turn causes established residents to resent incomers.  The deprivation and insecurity caused by the lack of social housing to those who need it can be exploited by racists who offer believable lies to desperate and overstressed people.

There are things that can be done to resolve this crisis – though as we have seen, they have to be made possible at the level of national government.  One aspect of the solution is to build more Council housing, and if the Labour Party is to make housing as big an issue as those in need of it deserve it to be, I am sure our leadership will have to adopt the fundamental position of Defend Council Housing along with the more interesting proposals of the Labour Housing Group – or something like them – as very, very cautiously they are beginning to do.  Honourable mention here for John Healey, our last Minster for Housing, who topped the Shadow Cabinet poll at least partly (I hope!) because unlike many junior Ministers he not only has the ability to think originally and rigorously, but actually uses it.

This abominable ConDem Government claims to be encouraging the “Big Society”, while undermining and destroying the conditions that enable people to volunteer in their communities.  A stable home is an important part of this.  Giving people a permanent stake in the places where they live gives them a strong reason to fight to improve them, enables them to take control of their area, get to know their neighbours and build local cooperation and solidarity.  It makes the difference between a dormitory and a community.  It helps create the capacity, in terms of both time and money, for people to volunteer, as well as one of the bases from which a thriving labour movement grows.

Give them a place to stand, and they will move the Earth.

 

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Sense about Sharon

Hurrah for Shiraz Socialist.  My thoughts exactly.  Uncharacteristically therefore I shall sit back, shut up and let someone else do the talking.

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Give migrants a seat at the Twelve Tables

The first great milestone in legal history was the publication of the Twelve Tables during the early Republican period of Rome (and I can’t resist pointing out that it was achieved by class struggle).  Knowledge of what passed for law had previously been reserved for the aristocracy, who were of course free to make it up as they went along.   The plebs forced their rulers to set the laws of Rome in stone (literally) for everyone to consult whenever they needed.

Since then the defining characteristics of a system of law, as opposed to one of arbitrary rule, have been taken to be certainty and equal application to all, which certainty makes possible.  For 350 years, since the prize won by the togate masses was reconquered by the English Revolution, this principle has been a firm part of this country’s understanding of its legal system.

Of course we live in a democracy, with equal rights based on the modern concept of citizenship, and no-one would dream of dividing citizens into categories as to their level of legal rights, riven though we still are by more fundamental divisions based on economics.  There is, however, an important category of people to which that apparently basic principle doesn’t apply – non-citizens.

Migrants are indeed divided into categories based on such accidental things as which country they were born in (with a bewildering variety of rules) and who they live with.  Many are subject to an immigration system of  quasi-courts and pure administrative decisions which can and do determine their rights at a fundamental level.  Some are subject to detention without notice, not because they have committed a crime, but merely for administrative reasons.

Even the decisions of “immigration judges” in the special immigration quasi-courts do not meet the demands of the Roman plebs two and a half millennia ago.  They frequently contain statements – the judge “does not accept X”, or “does not consider Y to be compelling”, etc – unsupported by coherent reasons or evidence.  The recent Bail Observation Project, in which observers from Oxford participated, has collected, collated and analysed accounts of the workings of one aspect of this quasi-court system; their findings are published here.

The mention of rights based on citizenship highlights an important aspect of the problem.  We think of many of these as simply human rights, and of course they are, but humanity is a social animal and our framework of rights and responsibilites is inseparable in practice from the right to participate in the community.  It follows that to make life better and fairer for migrants, the path to citizenship (if they so wish) should be made easier and clearer, and participation in the community should be made possible, wherever an individual may have got to in the legal process.

The immigration system at present throws barrier after barrier in the way of migrants’ participation in the community.  They are accused by the gutter press of living off benefits, but many are not allowed to work.  They’re not allowed to claim benefits either, apart from the barest subsistence.  There are arguments to be had about how best to make migration benefit everyone, but I humbly submit that a system under which someone can be arrested for earning their own living is straightforwardly crazy.

This, then, is my plea.  Let’s by all means have a full policy argument about whether and what we need in the way of border controls and systems of immigration law (yes, very much let’s – it would be a nice change to argue about it constructively).  But first let’s establish a basis on which we can have a rational debate.  Let’s put right the most glaring excrescences of the current system in order to allow migrants to participate in life here, not be hidden away or made destitute, so they can be looked on as normal human beings, not a “social problem”.  And let’s allow them the dignity of being considered as part of society and the basic human rights to certanty about the laws affecting them, and equality under those laws.  We owe it to them, if not to the long-dead Romans, from whom (who knows?) some of them may be descended.

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Hello again

“Around the middle of the road of life”

was how Dante began his Divine Comedy, meaning he was in his mid-thirties, the Biblical span being “three score years and ten”: it wasn’t the Psalmist’s fault the ConDems have misinterpreted the passage as indicating the age to which poor people should work at McDonalds before getting a state pension.  And though my friend Emma was kind enough to say recently that I’d stay twenty-something until I started drawing that pension, in purely chronological terms I’m approaching my mid-thirties with more speed than enthusiasm.

And I haven’t written a masterpiece of world literature (not that I plan to).  I haven’t written anything.

As you can see, then, I’ve decided to start occasionally blogging again (a redundant but unobjectionable statement of the sort that forms the basic stodge of British conversation: maybe its mashed potato).

Why blog?  For a start, I’m opinionated.  Contrary to popular rumour, local politicians don’t actually get all that many opportunities to hear the sound of their own voices; and in any case, if I tried to turn every meeting into An Audience With Mike Rowley, people would soon get fed up of the sound of mine.  What I don’t get the chance to say in meetings, but would like to, will go here, along with any other stuff I feel like posting.*

I know.  I’m really selling this blog, aren’t I?

The proper purpose is hopefully to share a few thoughts and ideas, serious and otherwise.  I’m not bigheaded enough to think this will ever have a wide readership, but if I can draw a few people’s attention to things I feel strongly about, and make a few people laugh now and then, I’ll have achieved my objectives.  Wish me luck.

* Needless to say my posts aren’t to be taken as reflecting the views of Oxford Labour, any of my fellow Labour Councillors or the Council as a whole.  If they always did that would be scary in more ways than one.

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