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Richard’s Blog

Richard’s Blog

May’s Blog 2018

A couple of weeks ago it was announced on the news that Scotland’s house prices had grown by 6% on average in the year. Now I can imagine that news was met with a smile for many householders, Building Societies and Banks across the country. A 6% return on investment in today’s climate is a significant result.

However, I was also reminded about a short article I had read which talked about housing having become a commodity to invest in and no longer considered a basic human right, too strong?

At one time, even in my life time, it was considered quite normal to rent your house from a social landlord. There was not the array of providers there are now of course mostly it was the Local Authority or the Scottish Special Housing Association. The majority of the people I went to school with lived in rented accommodation. The Provost of my town lived three doors down. In those days the provost had a special, ornamental lamppost put in the street in front of their house. No-one gave it a thought if you lived in your own house or rented.

Things changed in the 80s and 90s with the right to buy scheme and the lack of re-investment in social housing. Followed on by de-regulation of tenancies which removed rent control, the arrival of ‘Buy to Let’ mortgages and the 100% mortgage along with a more relaxed approach to lending we saw both the huge increase in home ownership and the rise of the private landlord again. Housing had become an investment, an indicator of the wealth of the nation, a commodity which could fall but mostly grew in value over time. This was great news for those who owned their own house especially if you had bought at the ‘right’ time.

However, today we are told that some people despite their best efforts will not attain their own home however modest. Some will have to wait until they are well into their thirties before they can take their first steps into the housing market. There is talk of people receiving a grant of £10,000 in the future from the government at age 25 because the inequality has reached such an extent. The experts say that will still not be enough for a deposit on a house!

We have a growing problem in this country. Poverty is part of our communities. It affects people in many ways some less obvious than others and puts pressure on families, particularly young families, especially when linked with societal expectations. In addition there is a housing crisis. This is not news. It has been building over many years. Like most of these ‘big’ issues it is complex and not easy to resolve. However, it clearly can be if the public belief is there and as a consequence the political will.

My parents had lived through the depression of the 1930s and served King and country during World War 2. The country was devastated and nearly bankrupted. Industry needed investment to move from a war footing back to a peacetime economy. The country’s infrastructure needed rebuilt. Prioritising tasks must have been unbelievably challenging and yet among all the trials the country saw the largest sustained programme of housebuilding ever seen. Why, because the need was obvious and it was inconceivable that people, who had gone through so much, would not have an affordable home to live in. Housing was seen as a right. 

The first step to resolving our housing crisis is to believe that it can be sorted. The second step is to want to sort it. Do we? Are we prepared to take collective responsibility? Or is it like the extra penny on income tax, a great idea for everyone else but I not going to pay it?

 

April’s Blog 2018

I live near a village. It is a fine place with an active community seemingly always looking for ways to improve their village and the lives of the people who live there.

There is a charity shop in the main street which raises funds for the community. The shop windows are regularly changed and most of the time dressed with a theme in mind. I noticed this week the theme is ‘home’ and among other things they have a framed definition of the word in the window,

“Home (hom) n. 1. A gathering place for family to join together in laughter. 2. The one place you will always be surrounded by those who love you. 3. A place or feeling of belonging.”

This is perhaps an idealised view but one that many could buy into, particularly the latter definition. I wonder how many of us have felt that feeling of belonging after being away when you turn the corner in the road and there is the ‘special’ place lying before you, or it’s reaching the road end or opening the gate to the path and all of a sudden you feel it, the sense of safety, of warmth and love. You start to anticipate the welcome, the smiles, handshakes, hugs, the kettle going on, chat, banter, familiarity, like putting on an old pair of baffies you just slip into the embrace of being home, of being accepted.

I am lucky I have and still do experience such feelings although nowadays it can be as much about memories as the here and now. Unfortunately many people do not and some never have shared that experience.

The reasons for that are multitudinous in number: early upbringing, childhood trauma, illness, accident, trauma in later life, bereavement, addictions and so on. Sometimes relationships deteriorate to the extent that they breakdown resulting in homelessness. For many people homelessness is a very brief blip in their lives. They have the personal resources to solve the problem and find somewhere else to live. For others it becomes a chronic condition contributing to and also symptomatic of other issues in that person’s life, mental health problems, addictions, offending behaviour, learning difficulties, another long list.

You will see some of these guys any day of the week in and around the city centre, sitting in the cold with their paper cups in front asking for change. There is a tendency for passers bye to completely ignore them, walk past as if they do not exist. Some, if they think about the individual at all, will blame them for being homeless, for begging in the street. They will not think about the structural issues in society which have helped to put them there or continue to contribute to keeping them there. Nor will they consider what personal circumstances may have contributed to the path leading to this point in the person’s life. They will be considered a ‘waster’ or worse and dismissed.

People can be quick to judge others believing that such deprivation would never call at their door. I have been around a wee while and I have seen plenty of people with families, good jobs, some with university educations and successful professions losing it all and ending up sleeping rough and living in hostels. Listening to their accounts it is so easy for everything to slip away.

There is an old North American saying, “Do not judge a man until you have walked in his shoes for a month.” The next time you see someone in the street I ask you to think on and consider if you would have really faired any better if you had experienced their path. Be thankful but also remember we are all Jock Thompson’s bairns and that lad or lass will be someone’s son or daughter.

 

Poverty in Dundee

I was lucky enough to have tickets to ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Dundee Rep prior to Christmas. You will know the story if not the stage version. Its Charles Dickens’ imagining of Christmas although it is not a very pleasant time if you were poor and many were; a daily struggle to put food on the table, heat homes, maintain a roof over your head, pay bills even with a job. Without one would mean destitution, starvation and homelessness. The state’s solution was workhouses and debtors’ prison. It was charity that filled the void and enabled many to survive.

The Rep put on a marvellous rendition which rattled on through the story of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, a flint hearted individual whose only pleasure lay in the increase of his fortune. He had no thought for the struggles of others only for money. However, as a result of being haunted by several spirits he finds his humanity again and goes on to live a more productive and happier life putting his wealth to good purpose helping others.

I thought one scene was particularly well done. It is toward the end of Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Present, a particularly gregarious and charismatic spirit full of life and good cheer but one also aware of people’s struggles in the world. The ghost pulls back his robe to reveal two waifs. In the book they are called Want and Ignorance but in this production set in Dundee and aimed at a modern audience they were named Poverty and Hunger. Now it didn’t really register with me at the time as I was taken with the performance and the show just continued to move along at a pace but afterwards it was easy to make the connection to present day Dundee.

The statistics are there for all to see just search the Dundee Partnership website. They make disturbing reading. Here are some examples:

  • Almost a third of the population are experiencing deprivation.
  • 28% of children in Dundee live in Poverty, 1 in 4.
  • 56% of children live in low income households.
  • 30% of the population live in fifteen of the most disadvantaged areas in the country.

 

I do not have stats for local food banks but STV reported in November 2017 on the work of the Trussel Trust which accounts for about two thirds of all food parcels in Scotland. April to September 2017 marked a new high for food bank usage, with 76,764 packages of emergency food supplies being handed out to those in need, around a third of which were children. 40% of applicants said that they needed the food because of delayed payments or changes to benefits. Another 40% said it was because of the effects of debt, low incomes, and/or homelessness.

What I can say about Dundee is that Positive Steps staff, at the end of a course on the roll out of Universal Credit were issued with a leaflet detailing everywhere in Dundee someone could access free food. Please remember Positive Steps support people with children as well as single adults. Is it really tolerable for anyone but especially children to have to access food at a soup kitchen?

This is not the time of Dickens or the Depression of the 1930s. This is the 21st Century and we live in the fifth wealthiest country in the world. It cannot be acceptable to allow poverty to become a normalised state for people. Remember poverty is not just about money, it can affect all areas of someone’s life: health, wellbeing, attainment and opportunity to name a few. Children are especially vulnerable and may well never achieve their potential as a result.

Fortunately there is a growing number of people and organisations in Dundee who are coming together to challenge this situation. Not just the high profile Dundee Fairness Commission but members of civil society are working together in groups to raise awareness of particular issues and importantly offer pragmatic solutions.

Sadly poverty is as much an issue today as it was in Dickens’ time. It affects an increasing number of people in our communities, in our lives and in truth how long would you remain unaffected if you lost your job? Charles Dickens concealed his two waifs under the ghost’s robes to symbolise how the poor were hidden and largely forgotten by wider society. This is the 21st Century and we live in the fifth richest country in the world. It does not have to be like this. What are you going to do about it?