Saturday, 24 June 2017

Grenfell Tower: some writings


These are a set of sensibly written and essentially non-partisan pieces on the Grenfell disaster. I feel it's necessary to do this so we get away from wanting everybody's head on a stick before we've got to grips with what actually happened. This matters to me because I'm on the board of a housing association with 30 or so high rise blocks.

Airlines show safety and profit go hand in hand. Let's not learn the wrong lessons from Grenfell.
"The aviation industry may be highly competitive but it is also tightly regulated and permeated by a culture that views safety as paramount. Such is the sector’s success that a report last year found that the number of annual fatalities almost halved over two decades while the number of global flight hours more than doubled"
Grenfell Tower fire: Should this cladding be allowed?

From the technical editor of Building Magazine - so may be better informed than some commentary.
The terrible and sudden spread of the fire at the west London tower this week has raised questions about whether ACM cladding should be permitted on high-rise residential towers
Is Grenfell Tower a monument to the death of the ethos of public service?

Tessa Shepperson at Landlord Law Blog knows here stuff - this is a little polemical but raises some interesting points such as one that is a warning for Tenant Management Organisations:
There seems to be a general tenancy nowadays, in all fields, for people to disrespect knowledge and experience and assume that people with no knowledge and no experience can – with advice – do as good a job as the experts.
Tenants are just tenants, they aren't buildings management experts.

To blame “Evil Tories” is to miss the point spectacularly…

In which we learn that regulation of privately rented properties is quite a bit stricter than that of state housing:
A programme of inspections takes place to tackle high-risk HMOs to ensure that means of escape and adequate fire safety measures are in place and to identify unlicensed HMOs.

There is an overlapping fire safety responsibility between the Council and the London Fire Brigade (LFB). Owners are required to carry out a fire risk assessment and make an emergency plan. The fire risk assessment is a systematic examination of the premises to identify the hazards from fire which must be recorded.

The Grenfell High-Rise Fire: A Litany of Failures?

From Wendell Cox in New Geography - so a US perspective:
Worse, in a larger sense, the Grenfell fire may turn out to be one of the world's great planning disasters.

And from blogger Tim Newman:
I have no idea what the philosophy was in the Grenfell Tower, but it should have been to get everyone out ASAP in the event of a fire: you hear the alarm, everyone evacuates, the firemen turn up to see what’s what. From what I’m hearing, people believed they should stay in their apartments because the flats were designed to contain fires, or something like that. Even if they were designed to contain fires, you should still evacuate. Yes, it’s a pain in the arse standing in the carpark in your pyjamas at 1am, but it’s better than burning to death.
Suggests there's a need to review fire safety advice (staying put is pretty standard advice)

Or another well-informed blogger, Raedwald:
Around 6am, 5am UK time, last Wednesday morning I started watching Grenfell Tower burning. It was clear from the footage that the fire progressed on the outside of the building. "Cladding" I said to my plumber. A bit of digging about found the portfolio pics on the website of Studio E architects, of Tooley Street; they confirmed that an aluminium sandwich panel was specified.
There's still a way to go on this disaster. One thing that needs some urgent attention is the lack of preparedness from the Council. This echoes for us in Bradford since the Council completely failed in its response to serious flooding on Boxing Day 2015 - less serious for sure but a failure nonetheless. Is this pretty standard for Councils? Are we not ready for disaster - whether its a big fire, a flood, an outbreak of disease or a hurricane?

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

Young people are neoliberals - they just don't realise it yet so let's help them.


It seems to me that the real issue young people have is feeling excluded from the benefits of our capitalist, neoliberal society not that capitalist, neoliberal society itself. And this seems a reasonable gripe to me. Here's a tweet from lefty journalist John Elledge:




This - perhaps not all that considered - comment tells us a great deal. Mostly that the real irritation of the emerging graduate generation is that they feel unable to afford investment assets like houses. For me this is one of the essential failures of UK government over the last thirty years - the idea of a property owning democracy was ignored as we got ever more excited about the seemingly endless rise in house prices.

Some people want to blame all this on my generation - the boomers - who took advantage of cheap asset prices in the 1970s and 1980s and rode the bubble to the point where the house my Dad bought for £3,250 in 1963 in now 'worth' over £400,000 (Dad sold the house in 1975 for about £14,000). I am absolutely with all those people who feel that they're outside this bubblicious world - not just the young or poor but a whole load of people from 'Up North' who've not seen anything like the gains those 'Down South' have seen.

Add to this that we told young people that the way to get into this bubble world was to get a good degree (in fact any old degree as Blair's enthusiasm for book-learning led to the numbers going to university getting up towards half of 18 and 19 year olds). And because these degrees were the gateway to a world of wealth and power, we told young people they could have a load of (cheap) borrowing that they'd spend half their life paying off so as to get the degree.

Young people don't want to be socialists, they want the entrance fee to our neoliberal world of valuable assets, to that property-owning democracy we were all promised. And this is why they've dumped the capitalists, the people who they think are stopping them from joining the glorious free market rat race. "Have free university tuition". "Here's a subsidised mortgage". "How about a big pay rise". "Or a higher minimum wage". "Free child care". "Discounted rail travel"...

It doesn't matter how much others ask where all this cash is coming from, people aren't listening. Or rather they see those telephone number house prices and say, "y'all can afford to pay for this stuff, get on with it". And Labour offered them everything they were asking for and some things they weren't - no questions asked. Is it any surprise that folk who are outside that wealth bubble flocked to this banner?

Young people - and plenty of the not-so-young - want to know when it's their turn to play the free market, asset-owning, property-speculating game. They don't want socialism, they want what their parents and grandparents had - the chance to have a real cash stake in their society, the thing that Margaret Thatcher promised to my generation (and largely delivered). This isn't about nationalisation for all that people tell you the government should run stuff (they always have done by the way even at the height of Maggie's pomp). No, it's about us renewing the promise we made to the post-war generation and to late boomers like me - play your part, work hard, be a good citizen and we'll make sure you can have that real cash stake in Britain.

Right now we're still telling people to play their part, to work hard, to borrow to fund education and to be a good citizen but government has reneged on its side of the bargain, that cash stake in Britain. And the single-minded focus of any new government should be to renew that offer and make it work. Those young people really aren't baby ideologues desperate for some sort of socialist New Jerusalem. They're just like you and I were 30, 40, 50 or 60 years ago - bothered about our own futures, the things we care about, in that thing Adam Smith saw as the driver of a better, richer society: self-interest.

So let's start offering people that chance. Let's free up the planning system so more houses get built were people want to live. Let's revisit the idea of tax relief or other support that backs individual, personal investment in our society. Let's liberate the innovative instincts of property and finance people to meet the aspirations of today's ambitious young people - 21st century capitalists, budding neoliberals every one. And let's do this knowing that the alternative, Labour's market-fixing, price-controlling, 'magic money tree' programme carries in it the seeds of disaster, the crash that socialism always brings.

I'm with you if you want to bash at those folk farming grants and corporate welfare. I'm on your side if you want to try and stop well-funded lobbyists getting government to fix a market or a system to suit their clients. I'm right there if what you want is to stop rent-seekers freeloading on free health, welfare and education. And I agree with you when you say people should pay the taxes they owe - on the nail not just after a long-winded and expensive investigation.

But this isn't about socialism just about getting a free market that works for all of us. It's about setting economic liberty - the idea that, more than anything else, is responsible for the health and wealth nearly all of us enjoy today (even if we can't afford a house) - at the heart of government policy. The more we try to control the market the less liberty we have and the more power we hand to the commissioners, the lobbyists and the corporations protected by the government fix.

What we all want is a real stake in the nation we're a part of - not just a vague notion of citizenship but a real sense of being a part of the place, of having roots. And that means renewing that promise made by Harold MacMillan in the 1950s, by Ted Heath in 1970 and by Margaret Thatcher in 1983 - Britain isn't just land and institutions but its people, all of them. And all of them should have the chance to take a real, solid, tangible stake in their nation.

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Where my social conscience comes from - a story


The housing association board I sit on has an annual appraisal system - not my favourite thing but probably a good idea. Anyway, during my recent appraisal our chair, who conducted the appraisal, commented on my social conscience. I could have taken this as "you're a Tory, you're not supposed to have one of those" but, knowing the man in question, it was meant simply as a positive observation.

So let me tell you where it comes from by retelling the story my Dad told at my Mum's funeral.

"After the war an old lady was found dead in the streets of Penge. She died of malnutrition.

Three ladies, Rachel Notley, Mrs Martin-Clarke and Joy's mother (my grandmother) were so shocked that they set up one of the first meals-on-wheels services in the country.

The ladies made soup, bought bread and persuaded the curate of St John's, Penge to help them deliver said soup and bread to old folk in the town using his motorcycle with sidecar.

Some years later, the ladies wanted to get council to get them a van and, because we had a Hillman Husky, Grandma asked my Mum to deliver meals-on-wheels in that to show there was a need. The council gave them a van.

And Joy delivered meals-on-wheels in that van for thirty years."

There's a load more things that Mum did like getting the funds to buy the Melvin Hall, turning a little lunch club into feeding up to a hundred old folk every day out of that hall. Mum did that because, in simple terms, her Mum had instilled in her the idea of charity - which is why my brother read the parable of the Good Samaritan at the funeral. Mum cared.

One other thing. Mum was - from her teens to her old age - a Conservative.

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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Instant housing experts. Where have you been all these years?


I sit on the board of a housing association. We have thirty or so high rise properties and the issues relating to these properties have been foremost in our minds for some long while. Not just the sorts of problem that led to the terrible fire in North Kensington (although we've had a problem with cladding being dislodged during stormy weather) but a more fundamental issue - not only are these properties unpopular with tenants they're also expensive to manage. It's an oversimplification but we'd really rather we didn't have them but we've  a thousand or so mostly pretty poor people living in them. It seems that managing high rises is going to stay right on the top of our agenda for the foreseeable future.

Right now I'm not going to say what should or shouldn't be the right regulatory response from central government - whether it's different cladding systems, sprinklers, alarm systems or more intensive housing management. It could be all of these things with the result that properties that are, at best, marginal to the business plan become utterly uneconomic. And before you all go off shouting about commercialising affordable housing bear in mind that we've over 20,000 former council homes and the business plan is about keeping all those homes up to a decent standard as well as finding ways to build a few hundred new homes for rent or sale. All set against a declining revenue (resulting from a central government instruction to reduce our rents by 1% per year) and rising construction costs.

My fellow board members will take all this very seriously. This board has overseen a massive investment in the homes we provide and will continue to do its best to hold the management of our business to account and to ensure that, within the limits of our resources, we provide the best we can for our tenants. Then I read, in the media or most often in ill-informed social media rants, of how organisations like the one whose board I sit on are somehow rapacious and greedy capitalists filled with board members only interested in cash or preferment - mostly from people who've done next to damn all to make their communities better places (unless you count going on marches or selling newspapers outside student unions as some sort of contribution).

I look at my fellow board members and I don't see the caricature painted by the leftist media. Instead I see some tenants, people who work for other social housing organisations, a couple of councillors, some folk from the supply end of the business, and some with financial or legal know how. All either doing it - like me and the tenant representatives - for nothing or else getting paid a small allowance and expenses. Up and down the country there are thousands of such people sitting on housing association boards and I'm prepared to make two comments about them - they really do care, enough to actually give up some time to help direct these businesses, and on June 8th this year most of them will have voted Labour.

The way we run social housing - whether through local council housing revenue accounts or through not-for-profit (or 'profit for a purpose' if you prefer a realistic definition) social housing businesses - may not be perfect but let's not start out by attacking the people who sit on the boards. If there's a problem it's one of accountability and understanding rather than greed or selfishness on behalf of management or boards. Tenant management organisations like the one responsible for Grenfell Tower are a great idea in theory - handing over power and control to the people who live in social housing is surely straight out of the Corbyn play book, socialism in action? But as we've seen the capacity of organisations like this to get stuff wrong is just as high as that of dreadful capitalist for-profit organisations - perhaps, given the lack of professional skills among the board members, even higher.

There are many questions here but central to all this is how we manage social rented property. Some of this is about regulations on how things are built, how we protect against fire risk and how we undertake housing management. Other questions speak to the very nature of high rise residential blocks - is this really how we want families to live? Among all this we need to ask something else - something about governance. Can tenants manage the property in which they live without ownership (collective or otherwise)? Are boards structured well enough with sufficient independent expertise to manage risks?

None of this is about the good men and women who serve on these boards. The eight tenant directors on KCTMO will be utterly shocked and shattered by what has happened, just as would be the hundreds of similar folk who serve on the boards of 'arms length management companies', housing associations, tenant management groups and other housing organisations. But in the end, just as with any governance, we have to take the expertise of those who advise a board with a degree of faith - that's why we have external risk assessments, inspections, annual certification. It's why us board members pay attention to things like having fire certificates and up-to-date gas certification.

So to all the people -journalists, pundits, writers, political activists, folk shouting on Twitter - who've appointed themselves instant experts on all matters to do with housing safety. Where have you been all these years? Are you volunteering your time to serve on housing association boards? Have you helped tenants action groups engage better? Trust me, if your expertise is a fraction of what you claim it to be, those organisations would welcome your help.

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Friday, 9 June 2017

It's a small thing, Theresa


It's a small thing, Theresa

It's a small thing. Insignificant among the grand politics. But it's an important thing that tells us so much about the current mindset of the Conservtive Party and its leader.

During the election I received hundreds of emails from various important people in the party - from Boris, from Patrick, from Amber, from David, and, of course, from you. Each day my in box would welcome another slew of exhortations. I know, I know...the emails aren't really from these people, no-one's fooled (any more than I was fooled by similar ones from various Labour grandees). I'm a professional marketer.

It's a small thing. Since the polls closed at 10pm on Thursday night, my in boxes have been free of emails from the Conservative Party and its leaders - not one. And you know something, Theresa, this is a problem. While you've been coming over all strong and stable, you and your team have forgotten to do something really simple.

You've forgotten to send one more email. One that says:

'thank you very much. It wasn't the result we worked for but the Party really appreciates everything you've done over the election camapign.'

One simple little email. One mark of appreciation for the fact that I got myself completely drenched on polling day trying to get someone elected. One mark of appreciation for the thousands of other folk - the people you sent those endless email messages to during the campaign. People who knocked on doors. Delivered leaflets. Addressed envelopes. Made telephone calls. Manned polling stations. The people who made it possible for you to drive into Buckingham Palace this morning to see the Queen.

It's a small thing, Theresa. But it matters. Say thank you.

Simon

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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

You can't have different rules for trendy social enterprises - however noble their mission


About four years ago a chap called Adam Smith set up the Real Junk Food Project:
We are a revolutionary concept designed to challenge and highlight the issues of food waste while creating inclusive environments where everyone is welcome. Consisting of caf├ęs, outside catering, events, Sharehouse’s and Fuel For School, we use the Pay As You Feel Concept to utilise surplus food, educate the general public and campaign against global issues that food waste creates.

We intercept surplus food from a wide range of places including supermarkets, restaurants, wholesalers, food banks, food photographers and using common sense and decades of experience make a judgement on whether the food is fit for human consumption.
In a world where the default response of the environmentally-concerned is to shout at government and organise meetings, Adam Smith stands out as one of those people who just went and did something. Rather than ask government to spend taxpayers money he and his colleagues walked head-on towards the regulations and management practices that encourage food waste. This is both admirable and innovative and has my support.

There is, however, a problem because Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (“FIC”) confirms that:
...it remains an offence to place food with an expired ‘use by’ date on the market and if such food is discovered then it must automatically be deemed unsafe. This is not a rebuttable presumption.
Yesterday the news broke that the Real Junk Food Project was under investigation by West Yorkshire Trading Standards:
West Yorkshire Trading Standards (WYTSS) said it found more than 400 items past their use-by date at the RJFP warehouse on the Grangefield Estate in Pudsey.

A letter sent to RJFP states 444 items, which were a cumulative total of 6,345 days past the use-by dates, were discovered.
The regulations, at least as I see them, seem pretty unequivocal and WYTSS had little choice but to conduct an investigation indeed failing to do so might be seen as failing in its duty. And WYTSS is clearly not singling out the Real Junk Food Project - here is a successful prosecution from May 2017:
A supermarket owner has been ordered to pay more than £20,000 in fines and costs for selling items of food up to nearly 50 days over their use-by date.

Trading Standards made a routine visit to Shimla Superstore Ltd, in Clayton Road, Bradford, on September 13 last year and discovered 88 items available for sale past their use-by date.

Of these, five items of a turkey product with olives were 48 days out of date.

When added together, the total number of days past the use-by date for all 88 items was 1,769.
It is clear that trading standards cannot make a distinction between a project such as the Real Junk Food Project set up with noble motives and a straightforward food retailer. This doesn't mean that RJFP doesn't have a defence - Adam Smith is, as he says, an experienced chef - but does ask the question as to whether the absolute nature of the regulation in question needs challenge.

If we are to improve the efficiency in which we use food resources (there's a debate to be had about this but, for now, let's assume this is a great idea and that efficiency is defined by how little is thrown away) then the way in which food safety regulations are applied probably needs questioning. At the heart of all this is where responsibility rests - with the consumer or with the manufacturer. In essence this is the same debate as that about raw milk cheese - if you go to, for example, to The Courtyard Dairy at Settle, they'll ask you whether you're OK with cheese made from unpasteurised milk as this provides them cover since the consumer is accepting the risk (as far as I know this wouldn't work in Scotland).

Others will doubtless pour over the laws involved here and quite rightly so. There will be calls for changes to the regulations (England's regulations on raw milk are, for example, far less stringent than those in Scotland) although, so long as we're members of the EU, this is a slow, torturous and contested process. But in the end, regulatory agencies such as trading standards and the Food Standards Agency cannot have regard to the mission of the organisation breaching the regulations regarding, in this case, the sale or use of products passed their 'use by' date.

What I hope is that this debate questions the manner in which 'use by' dates are applied by food manufacturers. There is a petition raised which again lifts the debate from the mundane pages of council committee reports or the shock-horror of local paper reporting but we have to accept that in a complex food distribution system and a dynamic market regulations exist to protect consumers. And that this applies just as much to trendy social enterprises as it does to huge supermarket chains. The regulations we have didn't arise to promote food waste (I'm sure food manufacturers and retailers would prefer more scope and less waste) but were introduced to protect consumers from the health risks associated with old, poorly-stored and/or damaged food.

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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

How Pakistan lost the names of god....


A poignant article in Kashmir Monitor tells of when the name of God in Pakistan became Allah. And includes this quote from author Mohammed Hanif:
Author Mohamed Hanif, in his celebrated debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says it best: “…All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory as if a wind had swept the land and blown them away. Innocuous, intimate names: Persian Khuda which had always been handy for ghazal poets as it rhymed with most of the operative verbs; Rab, which poor people invoked in their hour of distress; Maula, which Sufis shouted in their hashish sessions. Allah had given Himself ninety-nine names. His people had improvised many more. But all these names slowly started to disappear: from official stationary, from Friday sermons, from newspaper editorials, from mothers’ prayers, from greeting cards, from official memos, from the lips of television quiz show hosts, from children’s storybooks, from lovers’ songs, from court orders, from habeas corpus applications, from inter-school debating competitions, from road inauguration speeches, from memorial services, from cricket players’ curses; even from beggars’ begging pleas.”
So much is lost when religious orthodoxy - Islam in this case - destroys folklore. The efrits die, rakhshasa stop prowling, the fairies vanish, and the green god disappears back into his mossy home in the heart of the wood. In Pakistan, the diversity of our appeal to the spirit world is no longer. And the world is poorer.

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