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Articles

8 Aug

Here are two articles I’ve written recently, one on autonomous sports projects for the Occupied Times and another about the Localism Act and what it means for homeless people and the precariously housed for Novara Wire. I hope you find them interesting. Please share if you want to! 🙂

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Behind the Rent Strike – Nick Broomfield (1974)

2 May

I saw this wonderful film the other day as part of the Bread and Roses film festival – Nick Broomfield was there to answer questions afterwards so we learnt a little more about the making of the film. I enjoyed the film so much I wanted to write a short piece to encourage others to watch it. 

The film opens with a middle aged woman putting Nick Broomfield firmly in his place. As a middle class film-maker he can never understand the lives of the working class and will never produce films that will reflect their realities. Ethel was certainly right to bring this young arrogant film maker down to earth, and his inclusion of scenes like this perhaps reflect his willingness to acknowledge and interrogate these limitations, of both himself and his medium. Yet, despite his privileged position, Broomfield’s documentary of life in Kirkby, Liverpool during the rent strike of 1972/3 does succeed in vividly portraying the difficulties and determination of the community.

There are many wonderful scenes which subtly, and sometimes a lot more explicitly with Ethel, get to the root causes of the issues faced by community. Broomfield takes his camera into the local school, where the emphasis on discipline acts as a cover for the real issues of poverty and unemployment. As Ethel notes, when the school send in the careers advisor, they might as well send along someone from the dole office as well. He also films in the local Birdseye chicken factory where an incredible scene of lines of women dismembering chickens was filmed with Broomfield being pushed on one of the factories trolleys around the room. Broomfield and the trolley pusher had failed to communicate beforehand when his assistant would stop pushing the trolley, and so they ended up doing the entire length of the factory.

Broomfield described in a Q&A how the women were the ones who were more active in the day to day organising of the strike, although in the meetings it was the men who tended to dominate. He conveys this well in the film through his interviews with Ethel and another woman whose thoughtful observations and reflections on the strike very much show that they were at the forefront and how significantly the struggle impacted on their lives. Broomfield lamented slightly that he hadn’t filmed more of the daily conversations held by the women – with a set amount of film that he could use, he saved it for the set pieces such as the strike meetings. He states that he would make a ‘less direct film now’.

Despite what it could have been had more film been available, Behind the Rent Strike is a beautiful and important film. Although exactly 40 years ago, the words of the residents of Tower Hill Estate strongly resonate today. They faced increasing rents for their poor housing conditions whilst their wages stagnated. The situation was intolerable. As one resident described, ‘the law doesn’t work for us, we have to take it into our own hands’.

Liam Byrne and Punishing the Poor

24 Jan

Here are some notes about Liam Byrne’s speech last night at the LSE – I’m afraid I didn’t take the best notes as I was sitting there getting angry so it was hard to focus, but I will listen again to a recording of the lecture, which they put up on the LSE website, and fill in the gaps.

I just arrived home after attending Liam Byrne’s lecture on the welfare state – I’d been very interested in what he has to say on this issue after reading his appalling comments in the Guardian about the ‘something for nothing culture’ – a ‘culture’ that if he knew anything about poor people he would realise didn’t actually exist, firstly as everyone does contribute in some way to society, and secondly because it seems rather generous to refer to our present benefits system as ‘something’ – the reality of living on JSA is more like nothing. I was all primed to heckle and to challenge him on his and his party’s demonising of the unemployed which for me is a very personal issue. My mum brought me up as a single parent mother and felt the stigma of being ‘unemployed’ despite her more than full time job brining up an incredibly stubborn and difficult child. I am now on JSA after completing my master’s degree. I checked my email when I got indoors after Byrne’s stylistically engaging talk – of which the actual content was quite disagreeable – and saw an email from a job I had applied to. I’d actually received an email – this was really promising. I started to get really excited. If I’ve got this job, I’d better get some new blouses for working in the office – I actually pictured myself in my new blouses in my new office doing the interesting research that this job involved, no more Job Centre visits where you are treated with suspicion and punished for not finding a job that doesn’t exist. I opened the email and it was a rejection. It’s my first rejection as usually you don’t hear back at all from the place which you have spent so much of your time and energy writing to. I actually felt distraught this time. It is now becoming incredibly demoralising to make applications in which I do put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm and to receive a rejection. And to know I’ll have to return to the Job Centre which is a depressing thought. I’m sick of the joke of ‘job seekers allowance’ – being forced to job search in such a climate as this one. I almost want to refuse to job search until there are actually any decent jobs out there.

So what did Liam Byrne have to say about all this and the welfare state? As I said above, he was quite a stylistically pleasing speaker – he had a certain rhythm to his talk, but it was a little hard to focus as I was sitting there trying to get over the rage I felt at his comments on ‘something for nothing’ and trying to move beyond this rage to form a coherent comment and question for him afterwards about workfare, the current discourse/demonisation around the unemployed, and the framing of the current welfare debate in which both parties are attacking an ‘undeserving poor’. In his discussion of Beveridge’s eponymous report he actually referenced the Levellers – which I’m sure they would not be all too pleased about from my understanding (which to be fair is little) of the Levellers. He also emphasised ‘rights and responsibilities’ for a welfare state today. This is another way of him phrasing his idea of ‘something for something’. It does sound harmless enough and so it was a little hard to heckle him – he didn’t say anything that sounded too outrageous, but that’s politics I guess – disguising agendas through the clever use of language? Beneath his language there is a punitive agenda towards what they perceive to be the non-working poor. Whilst he did highlight the failures of the Tory government’s Work Programme, this again was perhaps more politics – having a go at the government in power rather than a genuine belief that the Work Programme is morally wrong, as well as economically – I can imagine him rolling out the exact same Work Programme if he were in power. Indeed, he spoke of the need to ‘enforce’ the responsibility to work and when asked to elaborate on what ‘enforcements’ he envisaged, I actually missed them, or perhaps he avoided the question (I’ll listen to the recording of the lecture and get back to you). He did say that he wanted to move the framing of welfare away from the neocon style of the Tories and to one which supported people to fulfil their potential, but surely this is undermined by his emphasis on enforcement. In a rather confusing moment he declared – ‘we sold all our council housing and we forgot to build any more’. I hope this was a weird joke, but I’m not sure. He seemed to be saying this seriously…surely it was tongue in cheek though? ‘We forgot to build anymore’………? Seriously…..how do you just forgot to BUILD HOUSES? Well actually even this PATHETIC excuse is a lie, if you read Anna Minton’s fabulous book Ground Control, the reality is a lot more sinister. Rather than merely ‘forgetting’ to build houses, the government engaged in a process whereby market forces were encouraged to enter the housing market and public money was given to private companies who knocked down perfectly good housing to build swish new apartments. His emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’/ending something for nothing, without any comprehension of what the reality of being poor is like, is also challenged by the magnificent film War Horse, to throw some popular culture into this discussion. Sometimes the individual cannot be held ‘responsible’ for their actions which are beyond their control. In the film, the father’s addiction to alcohol is kindly explained by his loving wife as a result of the horrors and pain he experienced in the Boer War. We watch the family’s turnip crop get destroyed by bad weather. Marginalised people cannot always take responsibility – it is often beyond their control and it is wrong and demonising to suggest that they should take responsibility.

OK, I’ll be kind to him – he did emphasise the need to create jobs – but said nothing on what kind of jobs these would be. Frankly, I don’t want his capitalist-soul-destroying jobs anyway.

There were some good questions by the audience – A disability rights activist questioned how they would support those who were unable to commit to work in the sense of which he spoke. One woman highlighted the privatization of the health service and how multi-national corporations are failing to pay the living wage. Another man spoke of the need to stop pitching the working poor against the unemployed. I was unimpressed by his responses to the most sensible comments of the evening. I am utterly disenchanted by all politicians and sick of being punished for not being in work.

Protest against the welfare ‘reform’ bill

12 Jan

Yesterday, a large group of people gathered opposite Parliament to lobby the Lords and protest against the welfare ‘reform’ bill that is currently being looked at in the House of Lords (there’s quite a nice webpage here that illustrates the progress of the bill which is quite useful http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/welfarereform.html). People from Single Mothers Self Defence, Disabled People Against the Cuts, Mad Pride, Kilburn Unemployed Workers, Boycott Workfare, the Right to Work, and other concerned individuals went along to highlight the extremely negative effects that the welfare ‘reform’ bill will have on the most vulnerable members of society, and to demand the bills defeat. The bill is an attempt to dramatically alter welfare as we know it – which in its present state is still highly inadequate – and to scrape together millions of pounds from the poorest in society to pay for the bankers’ crisis. The proposals in the bill, including capping housing benefits resulting in people being unable to afford their rents, scrapping the discretionary social fund which provides no-interest loans for the poor and for those who find themselves in crisis, and making changes to disability benefits so that those who are given money in recognition for the additional difficulties that they face in life are interrogated about their illness and given less money to support themselves. The proposals go on and on and are almost difficult to believe – that anybody could come up with such punitive measures that literally are an attack on the most vulnerable people in society is outrageous. Thankfully, some of the Lords have a fair bit of sense and are giving this bill the scrutiny it deserves – overthrowing vast swathes of it yesterday afternoon. As Lord Patel, a crossbencher and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, described “If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality”.

Whilst it was uplifting to be amongst passionate, determined, and admirable people yesterday afternoon, I was also a little disappointed at the lack of support from other groups and the rest of London. In my opinion, the whole of London should have been outside Parliament voicing their disgust at perhaps the nastiest cuts. Perhaps people were working so couldn’t make it down. But what about those idealist students who stormed Millbank last year against tuition fee increases and who have a more flexible timetable – why weren’t they supporting us yesterday? I am all for free education, but these cuts are a matter between life and death.

What is this government doing?

22 Dec

Is a question I find myself asking several times a day. Today I received a letter from ‘Broadway’ – a London based homeless charity – advising me on changes to my housing benefit. They sound like a fantastic charity and I appreciated their letter, but surely when government (housing??) policy, in this case the ‘Shared Accomodation Rate’ (which restricts the amount of housing benefit a person under 35 can claim to cover their rent in the private sector), sees the benefit claimant receive a letter from a homeless charity – surely this is the sign of bad housing policy?

Furthermore, this policy targets the under 35s – what have we done? Is this not age discrimination?