Tag Archives: communities

Telling the untold stories of austerity


Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites

Do you know what austerity really means?

Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”

But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.

Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.

Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.

O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.

While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.

Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.

People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.

As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”

Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.

Development and disability: new report urges action

Hazrat Bilal and family, Bangladesh (pic: Sightsavers)
Hazrat Bilal and family, Bangladesh (pic: Sightsavers)

Hazrat Bilal from Narshingdi, Bangladesh, has been blind since birth, but it was only in 2008 at the age of 33, with support from Bangladeshi charity Action for Blind Children, that he was officially registered as permanently disabled. That led to more support from services for the visually impaired; Hazrat got to know other people with sight problems and began to gain confidence.

The 39-year-old now runs his own grocery shop and has helped form a self-help group. It was only after help from the local charity, a partner of international charity Sightsavers, that his life was transformed but if more international development and aid plans were disability-inclusive, there would be many more stories like Hazrat’s.

One billion people all over the world – 15 per cent of the population – have a disability, according to the World Health Organisation. Of that total, 80 per cent live in developing countries.

Despite the fact that one of the eight Millennium Development Goals that world leaders agreed in 2000 was that every child should have a full primary education by 2015, more than a third of the 57 million children worldwide missing out on school have disabilities (see this stunning picture story about blind schoolchildren in Uganda). It seems incredible but disability was not included in the Millennium Development Goals.

Disabilities contribute to global economic, political and social development but it is well documented that development programmes overlook disability issues. That may change if a new report by the International Development Select Committee on disability and development has any impact. Today’s report urges the Department for International Development (DFID) to strengthen its work to include people with disabilities and calls for a focus on disability as a development issue.

The report’s recommendations echoes some of the actions outlined in international charity Sightsavers’ Put Us in the Picture campaign. Launched last year, the campaign calls on policymakers and politicians to include disabled people in international aid and development plans, highlighting the links between disability and poverty.

Specifically, the campaign says the government must ensure people with disabilities participate in, and benefit from, international development programmes and must talk, listen to and work with people with disabilities and their families. It also argues that DFID staff should be trained to include people with disabilities in their work.

You can support the Put Us in the Picture campaign here or follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #InThePicture

Prevention, partnership, proofing against the future

With less than six months to go before councils adopt responsibility for public health from the NHS in April 2013, much depends on successful collaboration between cross-sector agencies.

As the date approaches, the latest Guardian public health seminar gathered together an expert panel and audience of 50 stakeholders to discuss the changeover. The debate focused on partnership between the public and private sectors and barriers to integration. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian website.

Decent homes for the homeless

“Homelessness doesn’t have a face,” says Janet Marsh, “it can happen to anyone, anywhere.” Marsh, 65, from east London, lost her privately rented home in her 50s after her marriage ended, then became ill with epilepsy and arthritis. “People think homelessness is something you’ve done to yourself, there’s stigma and misconception,” she says.

Though Marsh is now living in temporary accommodation in Newham, her housing situation could not contrast more with the popular image of a tenure defined by shoddy, unregulated properties and unscrupulous private landlords. Marsh is a tenant of Local Space, an innovative housing association that uses private finance to buy homes on the open market, refurbishes the properties and leases them back to the council as temporary accommodation. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian’s housing network.

Public health: councils have the will, if not the way

“Smokers Wanted”, announced the sign above an information stall at a sixth-form college in Swindon. The quirky take on the usual stop-smoking message drew students’ attention to the public health campaign by multi-agency group the Swindon Tobacco Control Partnership. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian Local Government Network today.

Is Cameron’s ‘big society’ reserved for the rich?

A school-based performance of The Homophobia Project, by Peer Productions, a Surrey youth arts group supported by local philanthropy

Local philanthropy and volunteers have driven the ‘big society’ in Surrey for years. So is David Cameron’s flagship project only viable for affluent communities? England’s well-heeled home counties are the natural habitat of Cameron’s “big society”. The combination of a time- and cash-rich population and minuscule pockets of deprivation is more conducive to citizens becoming involved and running services than in more deprived areas. Click here to read the piece in Society Guardian today.

Growing old gracefully; shelter with style

London's 'best place to live' according to town planners
With bursts of retro orange shooting through its autumnal colour palette and wooden floors framed by bright white walls, the purpose-built accommodation pictured here wouldn’t look out of place in some interiors magazines.

Beneath the well-appointed rooms lies a bistro and a health spa where you can get your hair cut and styled or enjoy a pedicure.

The building, which opened in November, has achieved code level four for sustainable homes. It is heavily insulated, rainwater is harvested for reuse and heating is sourced from photovoltaic and solar thermal technology. A combined heat and power source also produces electricity, with any surplus sold to the national grid. The entire complex is wired for super-fast broadband.

Little wonder Ewart House has just won a ‘best place to live in London’ award in the Royal Town Planning Insitute’s annual London Planning Awards.

Ewart House's hair salon

A boutique hotel or maybe the latest urban eco-housing?

The only giveaway that Ewart House might in fact be sheltered housing is the fact the ground floor ‘spa’ also offers assisted bathing and the pedicure is really, well, more chiropody. Look more closely and you see the handrails lining the walls and the discrete pacing area for vulnerable residents. The decor and furnishings are also colour coordinated to enable residents with limited vision and dementia to recognise which part of the building they are in; no institutional signage here but subtle ways for residents to get their bearings. In a separate wing with its own entrance are seven flats let to younger people with disabilities and the building is intended to act as a community hub.

Ewart House appears to have substance as well as style; this isn’t just fashionable living for the frail. The extra care sheltered home for frail older people, including people with mild dementia, contains self-contained flats for 47 residents. Almost all flats have a private balcony and some are designed for couples whose fragile health prevents them from sharing a bedroom.The weekly rent and service charges are £135.

The ground floor bistro, Ewart House

The project is a partnership between housing association Harrow Churches (HCHA), which manages the building and provides day time support, and the charity Creative Support, which provides specialist support staff on call 24-hours a day.

With a recent report by the Alzheimers Society suggesting that 50,000 people in the UK are being forced into care homes prematurely, Ewart House has three flats designed for people with mild dementia and the staff are trained in dementia care.

The three-storey building, designed by architects JCMT and styled by interior decorators Stanbridge Interiors, was built using a £6.3m loan from the Homes and Communities Agency, a £3m loan secured by HCHA from Santander and money raised by leasing part of the land to development partner Octavia Housing. Harrow Council pays for employing two teams of staff providing personal care and support while housing support staff are employed by HCHA.

Despite the obvious benefits and official plaudits, HCHA warns the funding climate is a massive threat to creating similar schemes. Chief execuitve Chris Holley says: ‘We’re extremely worried that funding will not be available for more schemes like this despite the substantial social and financial advantages it offers over alternatives like residential and nursing care.

According to one elderly resident, William Fordham, Ewart House is a breath of fresh air: ‘The best thing is the freedom. It’s magic – I have my own flat but carers coming in and out. I didn’t know places like this existed.’ As William’s words suggest, why should losing your youth mean losing your desire for decent décor?

* Images by photographer Lucy Baker

A neet partnership

The Miller Road project, Banbury, where disparate agencies are tackling youth housing as well as training. Pic: John Alexander

Aiming to crack two of the public sector’s greatest challenges – homelessness and the Neet issue – is daunting enough. Doing so with a multi-agency partnership spanning the sectors of local government, charity, education and housing makes the task even more ambitious. Read more about the scheme in Banbury in my Guardian Public article today.

Are we losing the care in our communities?

Bill Mumford, chairman, Voluntary Organisations Disability Group
When the revolution of care in the community took place, the decision to close long stay institutions resulted in a new, big idea; normal lifestyles, in normal houses, in normal streets.

People found themselves discharged from hospitals into small group homes in virtually every town in the UK. These were shared houses registered as care homes operating effectively as shared supported housing in the days before the supported living drive but without the important security of a tenancy. For many it felt like not only a new life, but a better one.

But now, just as people are looking forward to enjoying this life, due to bureaucratic, regulatory and financial reasons, people are trapped in unwanted small registered care homes. These homes are now closing because of running costs or the need to meet national minimum standards and changes in commissioning practice which prefer supported housing over ‘care homes’.

The problem is these closures are not happening in a strategic or orderly way, so the people living there face the prospect of another move into the unknown.

Take John, for example. He has a complex disability and moved from a long stay institution in 1986 to live in the community. His funding came from the council (let’s call it council A) where his parents lived although his new home was based in a different local authority area (council B).

In 1990 John moved to a smaller house, still registered as a care home (as it was before the supported living options became available), but less rural and with more to do in the community. The new house was still based in council B’s area and the funding arrangements continued.

Over the last 15 years John and his housemates have enjoyed a settled and fairly contented life building up their local support networks. Recently, two of the other people living there have moved on, leaving behind John and a fellow housemate, Mary (she is funded by council C).

The problem is that the charity that runs the home cannot find new people to move in to fill the vacancies – it has continued to run the service at a loss for the past two years.

The inability to find people to join John and Mary has been largely due to the understandable reluctance of authorities to make referrals to registered care placements.

As a solution, the charity could de-register the accommodation so it is no longer classed as a care home, but if it does so, it will come up against two bureaucratic barriers. Firstly, local government ‘ordinary residence’ rules mean council B would have to take on the support costs for John and Mary (while councils A and C would relinquish all funding). Secondly, council B is reluctant to open up its procurement arrangements to recognise the charity as a preferred contractor so will not place people there under contract for supported living!

Unknown to John and Mary, the home is likely to close and they will be faced with a move back to authorities A and C, a part of the country they haven’t lived in for over 20 years where not many family members remain. The costs to authorities A and C are very likely to increase while authority B will lose a good resource that could meet local needs.

The Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) researched the issues affecting people with disabilities because of the Ordinary Residence rules in 1997.

Our 2007 report titled No Place Like Home recommended three actions: firstly to agree the principle of a person-centred approach to funding and placement, secondly for the government to issue guidance and thirdly to put in place a framework for funding to transfer between authorities.

In October the VODG published Not in My Backyard as a follow up and found that despite the fact that new guidance had been issued there was little evidence of good practice. VODG demands the government include the concept of portability of social care entitlement in the white paper on social care due to be published next year.

We must do right by people like John and Mary; they represent a particularly wronged generation of people. Regardless of promises for future reform we need a kind of national amnesty, one that ensures funding is in the right place, providers and commissioners are working in partnership and individuals are given a proper voice. Because putting people first is not just a one off action, it is an enduring commitment.