Monthly Archives: August 2012

Criminalizing homelessness will not solve the housing crisis

Grant ‘Ratboy’ Shapps, friend of the landlord and enemy of the homeless

There has been a housing shortage in Britain since the end of WWII. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the shortage was so acute, that ex-servicemen and their families took to occupying empty buildings. In 1969, the London Street Commune occupied a mansion at 144 Piccadilly to draw attention to the housing shortage.  But the idea of squatting has a much older history, that goes back to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. The Diggers, who were a proto-socialists/anarchists active between 1649 and 1650, also occupied and cultivated waste and common land and encouraged others to pull down the enclosures. But they found themselves persecuted by landowners and many were imprisoned. In the aftermath, the enclosure of common land was accelerated by the passage of further Inclosure Acts, which, by the late 18th Century, had effectively wiped out most of the common land in the country, thus forcing people off the land and into the cities.

British property laws are some of the most arcane in the world and tend to favour the landowner and other moneyed interests. In short, they are a relic of feudalism and, to my knowledge, these property laws have never once been modified. Where else in the world would you find the archaic notion of a leasehold property? We now have shared-ownership schemes which seem to be an extension of the leasehold property but with one difference: you continue to pay rent to a landlord, thus meaning that you will never own the property even if you manage to pay off the mortgage.

This government, like those before it, rather than deal with the housing crisis, prefers to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut and in the process they make people suffer. The new law against squatting criminalizes those who do not have a roof over their head. The Tories, particularly, see squatters purely as criminals. Never mind that rents in the private sector have soared, with landlords raking in massive amounts of money while ignoring the condition of the buildings that  they’re letting out. Council waiting lists are huge and Housing Associations won’t take you unless you’ve been through a local authority first. In short, housing provision in Britain is limited to those who have large salaries and if you don’t have one of those, you’re stuck.

Housing Minister, Grant Shapps,  a man not blessed with a great deal of intellectual talent (like the rest of his party) said on the BBC Website,

For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.

No longer will there be so-called ‘squatters’ rights’. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.

Shapps falls back on the well-worn phrase “hardworking people”. It’s as if to suggest that those who squat are not “hardworking”. He uses the word like a magical incantation. In many cases, squatters have actually improved the buildings that they have occupied. But never let the facts get in the way of the narrative, eh Ratboy? Better to fill up our prisons with those whose only crime is to be homeless and then slap them with a £5000 fine, thereby forcing them deeper into penury.

The government continues to lie about the scale of the housing problem. Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt (another rhyming slang) said,

Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said homelessness was at the lowest level for 28 years and the government was spending £400m a year on homelessness and £164m on bringing about 10,000 empty homes back into use.

I’d be interested to know who Blunt arrived at this figure. Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that this government is bringing empty properties “back into use”. I used to know of such a property in Hubert Grove in Clapham North in London. Out of curiosity I decided to track down the landlord, who I discovered was living in Tooting and owned several properties, all of which were in a derelict state. Landlords such as these are the real criminals.

Property in this country has always been subject to civil law. Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act comes into force at midnight, making it an offence to break into a property with the intention of squatting. Nowhere Towers wonders what other civil laws the government wants to convert to criminal laws.

There’s a sympathetic article here by Robert Elms, who was once a squatter. Indeed, I too, have been a squatter and let me tell you, it’s no fun being homeless.

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Dominic Raab and the Sweatshop Charter

Raabid politician in sweatshop economy shocker!

Here’s an interesting article from last Wednesday’s Guardian. It tells of a book, Britannia Unchanged, which advocates, (surprise, surprise) policies that are even further to the right of the current right-wing government. The book is due to be published before the Tory Party conference in the autumn. Here’s the article’s opening paragraph,

‘The talented and hard-working have nothing to fear,” says Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, with just the faintest hint of menace. It is an airless, lazy day in mid-August. The House of Commons cafe is half-deserted. But Raab, firm-jawed, slightly gaunt and a rising star of the Tory right, is spending the parliamentary recess in the traditional manner of ambitious politicians: using the Westminster news vacuum to attract attention to himself and his ideas.

Dominic Raab is a familiar name to Nowhere Towers, not only because he’s on TURC’s parliamentary council but also because he believes “feminists” are oppressing men. In other words, like so many Tories, he’s a dimwit who is over-confident about his limited intellectual capacity. So limited is his intellect, that he inverts reality to suit his narrative. Given half the chance, Raab would transform Britain into a sweatshop economy overnight.

Wearing jeans, the 38-year-old backbencher is talking – warily – about transforming the British workplace. He thinks current employment law offers “excessive protections” to workers. “People who are coasting – it should be easier to let them go, to give the unemployed a chance. It is a delicate balancing act, but it should be decided in favour of the latter.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the jeans that he was wearing were produced by sweatshop labour. The book follows on, as The Guardian reminds us, from a deeply-insulting statement made a couple of weeks ago by the book’s authors that Britain is a nation of “idlers”.

When Raab isn’t involved in TURC he also writes pamphlets for the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies. This one is called “Escaping the Straightjacket: Ten Regulatory Reforms to Create Jobs”. Here’s an excerpt,

More radical change has been suggested. In a leaked report in October 2011, venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft called for the
abolition of unfair dismissal and the introduction of “Compensated No Fault Dismissal”, where employers would be allowed to sack unproductive staff with basic redundancy pay and notice.

What Raab is doing here is repeating what the Beecroft Report proposed. It isn’t original and it points to one thing: no workplace security for workers.

The theory is simple. If employers have clearer powers to dismiss underperforming or uncommitted workers, more of them would
take a chance on hiring more staff. As Beecroft argues, the change would “lead to greater competitiveness, growth and employment”.
Employees would have the chance of a fresh start, without reputational damage. They would also benefit from the more flexible labour market that would result.

This is dishonest stuff. The only people who benefit from the so-called “flexible labour market” are the employers who pay a lower rate of National Insurance contribution and who don’t have to pay holiday or sick pay to their workers. Furthermore, the “theory” isn’t actually a theory in the true sense of the word, it is an assertion that is based upon fundamental Tory principle: the subaltern classes are there to be exploited. Denying them rights is part of the process to ensure the middle and upper classes continue to enjoy their disproportionate privileges and rights and the expense of those who graft in their factories, call-centres and workshops for a pittance.

By the time we get to page 10 of his ‘report’, it’s apparent that he cannot contain his excitement any longer,

Trade unions might seem a diminishing threat to business. Their membership has halved since 1979, and today only 15% of private sector employees belong to one.65 But this underestimates the extent of strike action in the public sector, where union membership is concentrated. The consequences spill over into the wider economy. According to the London Chamber of Commerce, each day of tube closures costs the capital’s economy £48 million. Similarly, if schools are shut, working parents may struggle to find childcare.

Four days of industrial action will not destroy an economy. Notice how Raab falls back on Francis Maude’s lie about last year’s teachers strike. He then proceeds to repeat the same hoary auld canard about minimum thresholds for strike votes while ignoring the fact that his party often wins elections on a lower share of the vote. Many local councils are also elected on turnouts of less than 25% but he doesn’t call for those elections to be declared null and void.

Raab is joined in this venture by Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Chris Skidmore (we’ve got a nickname for him, don’t you worry!) and Elizabeth Truss, four darlings of the Tory rabid right, who are, along with Raabid, members of the Free Enterprise Group (FEG).

Founded in October 2011, the group lists 38 supporting MPs on its website. The membership is youngish, more female and less white than the Conservative parliamentary party as a whole. It includes many of the new MPs currently identified by Tory-watchers as potential party leaders.

So confident is the FEG that they’ve published a book titled After the Coalition. It’s wishful thinking because it is unlikely that the Conservatives will win an overall majority and may even suffer heavy losses. The only way the party can win the next election is to cheat... which is par for the course for a party that despises workers, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the youth, mature students, women, Roma, Irish Travellers …

I’ve just had a look at the FEG website and wasn’t surprised to discover that there is some crossover between the FEG and TURC.

Raabid and his colleagues have never had to work in appalling conditions for little pay yet this is what they would force British workers to do. Their contempt for workers comes as naturally to them as breathing.

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Council Tax Benefit cuts spell further hardship for the low-waged, poor and vulnerable

Are we about to see a repeat of this?

Just when you think this venal government couldn’t get any crueller, I read today that the Con Dems are to scrap Council Tax Benefit (CTB) and leave it to local councils to make their own arrangements. This is what they describe as “localism”, which in an earlier blog, I described as a “marketing gimmick to sell council cuts”. It would appear that my initial fears have been proven correct. The definition of the word, “empowerment” in the Tory lexicon, is to grant local authorities the power to screw the poor.

This article from today’s Guardian tells us that Lord Snooty faces a rebellion in his own constituency over this issue.

David Cameron is facing a revolt in his own Oxfordshire “backyard” as local Tories join a national outcry over council tax reforms that they say will cost people on low earnings more than £420 a year from next April.

Tory-run West Oxfordshire district council, which covers the prime minister’s Witney constituency, has decided to go it alone and keep the existing system throughout next year, effectively snubbing Cameron’s government.

Council Tax, like the hated Poll tax before it, is not based on an individual’s ability to pay but on local property prices, which are themselves, inaccurate. In some areas, Council Tax is high and in other areas, it is lower. Often, in those areas where Council Tax is low, services have been slashed. Take Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, a council controlled for the last 6 years by the Tories, who have cut local services and forced out community groups out of Palingswick House to make way for Toby Young’s free school. This is evidence enough of how H&F council views those who are not materially wealthy. Here the Council Tax is apparently low but only because of the cuts and the stealth taxes imposed on the local population. These stealth taxes include, ramping up parking charges and charging to cart away bulky items of rubbish, a service that was once offered for free. The borough discount leisure card was scrapped almost as soon as they took power.

The last leader of the council, Stephen ‘Dear Leader’ Greenhalgh made it clear that he wanted more rich people to move into the borough. When in power, he approved the sale of council homes and he has leant on Housing Associations to sell any properties that become void. Property prices have increased dramatically  over the last 5 to 6 years with some properties in the borough selling for as much as £1m. It is unlikely that a council, like Hammersmith and Fulham, which is wholly committed to making life easier for their rich chums, would have its own version of CTB because it despises anyone who is poor or on a low income. Instead, those on low incomes will be forced to move out of the borough.

Polly Toynbee tells us that,

300 councils must each devise their own criteria. Each becomes a mini DWP, establishing its own means test without having access to people’s earnings. Each must divide its benefit pot between varying numbers of claimants each year. Miserly authorities can keep much of it for other purposes. Each decides who is “vulnerable” or whether to include disability living allowance, child benefit or personal savings in declaring who is eligible for how much.

Hammersmith and Fulham is one of those “miserly authorities” and I can expect someone like Foghorn Phibbs or Peter Graham to trot out social Darwinian clichés in defence of the council’s niggardly attitude to those who are on low or no incomes.

I found this interesting site that was set up by the students on the MA Investigative Journalism course at City University.

Hammersmith and Fulham is the fourth most expensive borough in the country, both to rent and to buy property. New developments will not include any more council housing, but will instead provide a large number of properties for rent at the 80 per cent level. That offers little opportunity for current residents on lower incomes to afford to live in the borough independently. Coupled with the Government’s benefit cap, large numbers of people may be forced out of the area.

The scrapping of CTB is the latest in a long line of poorly-conceived ideas to have come from this government, which in spite of its protestations, remains firmly committed to supporting and extending the powers of the rich at the expense of those who can least afford it.

The Worksop Guardian reports that 5,000 families could be at risk in Bassetlaw.

The Salford Star tells us that the mayor could be forced to implement cuts that may affect 20,000 people.

Before the Liberal Democrats accepted the poison chalice of governmental power, they told us that they wanted to scrap Council Tax and replace it with a fairer system of local income taxation. This idea was quietly dropped when Nick Clegg walked through the door of 10 Downing Street.

This government’s justification for CTB cuts is best illustrated by the intellectually-challenged Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, who claims that the cuts will “make work pay and promote local enterprise”. With wages stagnant,  prices increasing week on week, banks reluctant to lend businesses money and living standards falling, how does he see this happening?

This latest wheeze from the government will force even more people into poverty and debt and may even force people out onto the streets. Indeed, this could be another Poll Tax moment for the Tories with people taking to the streets to protest and much else besides.

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How to pedal

The title of this blog may seem a little self-evident. If you can ride a bike, you can pedal, right? Well, sort of. There is a way to pedal and a way not to pedal. When I’m out riding, I often see people pedalling badly. They don’t look as though they’re enjoying the experience much either. Now there may well be three reasons for poor pedalling technique:

1) The bike is too small or the saddle is too low for the rider

2) They were never taught how to pedal correctly

3) Both of the above

So what do I mean by “correct pedalling”? Pedalling should always be done with the balls of your feet and not the arch or the heel. There are a couple of reasons for this: when you pedal with the balls of your feet, you are delivering more power to the pedals. It’s also friendlier to your knees and ankles and you will improve your cadence (rate of pedalling). When you pedal with your arches or your heels, you will not deliver sufficient force to the pedals. You’re also storing up knee and ankle problems for the future.

If you already use SPD pedals, the choice has been made for you. The cleat is in the correct position on the sole of the shoe.

This illustration indicates the correct foot position for pedalling.

Courtesy Bikeradar.com

Happy cycling!

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A quick word about #Assange

Julian Assange… is he a narcissist? No, it’s a serious question. He is getting an awful attention but does he thrive on it? I’m sure he does. By the way, the hashtag in the title is deliberate (No! Really?), because Assange, the man, has been replaced with Assange the trending topic.

I’ve tried to steer clear of Assange (does that need a hashtag?) ever since he had international fame thrust upon him… or was it the other way around?  But after a long internal dialogue, I wrote this blog about him, but I did so through gritted teeth. Even as I write this, my teeth are clenched tight.

Let’s be blunt, Assange is no friend of the left as The Mambo points out. Assange describes himself as libertarian or market libertarian. Well, which one is he? Personally, I think Assange is ideologically confused or playing dumb but either way I think it is pretty safe to say that he is neither a socialist, an anarcho-communist or a Spartacist. The word “libertarian” only means one thing to me these days and it’s usually associated with notions about night-watchman states and Ayn Rand.

But what about free speech? Well, what about it? No one really truly has free speech, especially in Britain, which has some of the most stringent defamation laws in the world. There isn’t even a law on the statute books that enshrines free speech. But did Assange and co really tell us things we didn’t already know? No and the information that was leaked was old; too old to be of any real value to an, erm, terrorist or übervillain.

Now to the allegations of rape, I don’t understand why the Swedish public prosecutor can’t drag his/her carcass across the North Sea to interview Assange. Indeed, they’ve already interviewed him once and subsequently released him. Only recently,  a prosecutor interviewed a Serb murder suspect in his home country.

Rape often goes unreported or is otherwise not taken seriously by the police. Should the case get as far as the courtroom, defence barristers will work to discredit the testimony of the victim. That is not justice.

Given these factors, the allegations against Assange must be taken seriously, even if they seem to be eerily coincidental.

Finally, Assange’s former colleague at Wikileaks, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, set up OpenLeaks.net last year to make,

whistleblowing safer and more widespread. This will be done by providing dedicated and generally free services to whistleblowers and organizations interested in transparency. We will also create a Knowledge Base aiming to provide a comprehensive reference to all areas surrounding whistleblowing.

The site has been dormant since January 2011. In the meantime Domscheit-Berg has sold copies of his  bestseller,  Inside WikiLeaks: my time with Julian Assange at the world’s most dangerous website. 

I will say no more.

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The “Neo-Gaitskellites”

Timely blog from The Mambo. The Blair brand is toxic, so Progress decides the best thing is to appropriate the memory of one of Labour’s worst leaders, Hugh Gaitskell. They claim that Gaitskell’s influence – in death – resonates into the 21st century. It’s delusional stuff to be sure. Gaitskell never won a general election, his brand of tepid social democracy didn’t sit too well with the voters. Gaitskell blamed Labour’s 1959 general election defeat in the left of the party and attempted to remove Clause IV of Labour’s constitution. Progress’ precursor was the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, many of whose members ended up in the SDP.

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Taking another look at TURC

The Trade Union Reform Campaign has been mentioned a few times on this blog, mainly for the fact that its chairman, Adrian Burley, has a Nazi fetish and some rather questionable attitudes to difference. The Nazis, need I remind anyone, were no friends of the trade unions or the working class.  Here at Nowhere Towers, we believe that not only is Burley a Nazi fetishist, he’s more than likely a racist too.

TURC was founded towards the tail-end of last year. It has the approval of Lord Snooty, who sent them a letter giving them the big ‘thumbs up’ in their quest to smash what’s left of the trade union movement.

But they’re operating in an already crowded market with rivals like the Taxpayers Alliance and The Freedom Association working to achieve the same ends.

One thing that I’ve noticed about TURC is that its parliamentary council (not a coven then?) is mainly drawn from the 2010 intake but with one exception: Liam ‘I did nothing wrong’ Fox is also part of this gang of thugs. No doubt he’s there to lend a sheen of gravitas to this inexperienced collection of young and not-so-young bloodsuckers.

TURC’s beef is with paid union facility time, which is, like it or not, essential to workplace relations. Such work cannot be done outside of work hours. TURC thinks that it can. Like TPA and TFA, TURC refers to union members who are paid for facility time “Pilgrims”.  The only problem is that this word is entirely unrelated to pilgrims and pilgrimages but to a woman called Jane Pilgrim, a full-time organizer with UNISON. TURC likes broad brush strokes. But it’s guilt by association. Nothing more, nothing less.

For all its hot air and bluster, Nowhere Towers thinks TURC has arrived late to Thatcher’s red-bashing party.  The punch has all been drunk and what remains of the drink is a lonely bottle of vermouth. The TURCs are envious that they weren’t there to put the boot into trade unions and working class communities in the name of ‘freedom’.

The language of the 1980s has also been resurrected. Phrases like “loony left” are routinely trotted out about by the likes of Toby Young.

TURC’s website doesn’t seem to have been updated much. The last post on the home page occurred on 13 July, 2012. Some spammers have also left comments, which I find particularly amusing. No quality control but then what did you expect?

Here’s a glimpse of their Twitter page

I’ve thought of starting a Tory Reform Campaign but the Tory Reform Group already exists. They don’t seem to do much either. How about The Campaign to Reform the Tory Party? It’s needed, that’s for sure.

I found this on the Cabinet Office’s website.

Facility time is paid time off during working hours for trade union representatives to carry out trade union duties and time off for representatives and members to undertake trade union activities.

The Government recognises that unions can play a constructive role in a modern workplace contributing to the effective and efficient operation of public services.

Many union representatives give their own time in addition to any facility time, to support their colleagues both individually and collectively through the industrial relations machinery. Where this operates well it serves the interest both of the union members and the employer well.

We are seeking to find a balance between supporting constructive engagement with employee representatives for the good of public services and providing better value for the taxpayer.

Formal consultation is between the Civil Service and its trade unions, however if you are a civil servant and would like to comment, please send us your thoughts to facilitytimeconsultation@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk or post to Civil Service Workforce Reform Team, Cabinet Office, 4th Floor – Red Zone – Bank 20, 1 Horse Guards Road, London SW1A 2HQ. 

“Consultation” is one of those words that says the opposite of what it means whenever politicians use it. This government is taking the ideas of Burley and his  chums seriously. But then, this government is also arriving late to the party because there’s barely anything left of the unions to smash. Maybe, the Toxics will turn one each other. I’m not a fan of bloodsports, by the way, but I can always make an exception as far as the Tories’ are concerned.

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