Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Tackling poverty?

I’m just back from two days spent at the Poverty Alliance fifth Poverty Assembly. It’s far too long since I’ve been at an event like this and I really enjoyed it, although was a bit disappointed how attendance thinned out, especially among the sort of policymakers who could probably learn the most and make a difference.

I want to reflect for a moment on the plenary speeches today by Jackie Killeen, Scotland Director of the Big Lottery Fund and Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which I thought were very interesting. Jackie highlighted a programme the BLF have been running called Support and Connect which essentially funds projects to alleviate real hardship – foodbanks etc. She explained that she was very surprised they had ended up funding projects like this as it was not something they thought they would end up doing.

Julia Unwin also did something that is very unfashionable and highlighted the massive progress on tackling poverty between until 2010 (and particular from 1992). Particular achievements were the disconnection between older age and poverty. It had been taken for granted that as you grew older you would end up in extreme poverty. We got to the stage where we had almost eradicated that issue before 2010. We had also got to the stage where the connection between poverty and squalor had almost been added – yes people experienced poverty, but they did not also have to live in very poor quality housing. We had also moved on from talking about destitution to talking about relative poverty. We are now back to having to consider helping people with absolutely nothing. The powerful message of this bit of her speech was that we can make decisions to make a big difference to tackle poverty if there is a political will.

She went on to a similar point as Jackie was making – that post 2008 and with austerity, things have changed. We have demographic pressures on services and massive reductions in budgets. During the rest of the two days, I spent a lot of time in a session discussion whether area regeneration can make a difference in tackling poverty. Reflecting on the plenaries, I could not help but think we are at the same place when it comes to regeneration. From 1997 in particular, we were making big strides in renewing housing in deprived neighbourhoods, starting to target services and coproduce services in interesting ways in neighbourhoods (such as the developments after the New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal). For all their localist rhetoric, at Westminster policy is tumbling backwards as funding is diverted away from deprived local authorities and as the Communities and Local Government Select Committee said, they don’t even have a regeneration policy.

I’d like to say things are better in Scotland. We do have a regeneration strategy - Achieving a Sustainable Future. However, when a Scottish Government civil servant talked through this I was very troubled by the way the policy problem was framed and therefore the solutions. The contemporary focus on community empowerment in Scotland, although laudable, does easily slip into pathologising discourses, that blame communities for not being empowered enough, completely ignoring the massive inequalities when it comes to empowerment and capability, not to mention the states’ response.

A really interesting point on the civil servants slides was that they wanted to empower communities to “exploit opportunities in communities” based on their essays. I was fascinated by the lack of agency and choice of words. Exploit is a very strong word: capital exploits labour; colonialism exploited slaves; economic growth exploits the planet and its resources. Yet, without agency “exploit” becomes lovely – all communities have assets, we just have to put them to work. But we have to ask who is doing the exploiting? Can the community exploit their own assets and maintain the benefits of this? Are public services exploiting local communities to do things they can no longer afford to do (clean the streets, care for vulnerable children, alleviate poverty)? Are community assets being exploited to make a small cabal of developers a lot of money?

Quite practically, when I look at the delivery of services around me and listen to people in projects, it seems that local authorities in Scotland and other public services are retreating from good work they were doing because of the cuts, be that through the “Strathclydisation” of Police Scotland ending community policing in the Lothians as I used to experience it or through the litter that I wade through on the streets of my local neighbourhood, or the cuts that community projects are facing as local authorities protect core, statutory services.

But, just like with tackling poverty, we can make choices to make more money available for the state as a whole, and for deprived neighbourhoods. On the latter was a nice idea (which I’m sort of editing here) that came out of our group, which is having a much more strategic approach to public sector recruitment to make sure that it benefits deprived neighbourhoods the most. I think this would be a very exciting area for spatial strategy to go into, and there is some good practice I’ve read about already from the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. On the former, today started with a panel of MSPs. I’d recommend going back on the #PovertyAssembly twitter tag and look at some of the tweets from it. Basically, it did end up being rather a Patrick Harvie love-in. But much as almost everyone agreed with his wonderful blend of Green politics and radical economics, this really has not been turned into action. And I’m sorry, I cannot see it being turned into action anytime soon unless our politicians are braver and lead public debate more. We live in a very rich country. We have enough money to pay for a large, supportive state, and to ensure everyone, no matter where they live, has a dignified life. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

So many cyclists

I've taken to cycling the nine miles uphill, often into a south-westerly headwind, to work to increase my levels of fitness a bit further and because I enjoy it. This morning I got caught in a pelaton going through Fountainbridge. There were four/five of us, and it actually got quite hairy at times, with us jockeying for space in the advanced stop zones, and then weaving in and out of each other based on our different rates of acceleration and then speed, while we all cycled defensively to protect ourselves from cars doing stupid things. And then going along Gorgie Road I ended up bunny-hopping with another cyclist. We ended up nearly crashing as I went to overtake as he was getting ready to turn right. Luckily I realised what was happening and eased back behind him.

Have these near-misses with other cyclists is becoming a bit of an issue in Edinburgh. And it's because of the fantastic news that Edinburgh far surpasses other cities in Scotland with 4.8% of journeys to work being done by bike since 2011.  The constant increases reported by the Spokes traffic count data, and my own anecdotal experience, suggest the numbers cycling have increased massively since 2011 even. I see cyclists during every trip I make across the city, by whatever means, these days.

However, this increase, and the increased risks of collisions between cyclists, and between cyclists and cars is just crying out for us to Go Dutch/Copenhagenize. I'll give the council their due, they are investing record amounts. We are going to get widespread 20mph limits across the city (although they need a complete change in driving culture and attitude to be successful). But we now need to see bold decisions to take space on our roads away from motorised traffic and give it to pedestrians and cyclists. The network of paths on old railway lines in north Edinburgh is great to use at slow speed, and if you need to go to places along them. But I've had too many near-misses with dogs and pedestrians, including one very nasty accident that severely injured me, on shared paths, so I now avoid using them as much as possible. However, it depresses me that I can watch Gorgie Road be resurfaced and returned to exactly how it was - a series of parking bays linked by non-segregated cycle paths - which basically means every journey I have to cycle at 20mph out in the middle of the road. I still have to have three-month battles with the Council to sort out problems like this. The inner tube map of segregated cycle paths basically does not include the city centre as you basically take your life into your own hands traversing roads like the urban motorway that the Council have allowed Queen Street to become. 

We live in a cycling city. Can we have the infrastructure to match it now please?

And in other news, I was nearly knocked down by a car yesterday evening crossing Henderson Street as a pedestrian here, but that's another story.