Having moved into Norbury in July 2011 I find myself faced with having to decide how to vote in the forthcoming by-election. It’s a difficult choice. Should I vote Labour despite my continuing reservations about what it did under Blair and Brown and the as yet far off distancing from that legacy. Do I vote Labour because not to do so might help the Tory get in even though the Labour majority in 2010 is over 16,000? Do I vote based on who the Labour candidate is, her/his track record and vision for the future? And if that record and vision is flawed should I protest vote instead for one of the progressive minority candidates?
The way Labour treats two policy areas may help me make up my mind. Firstly, the future of the Croydon (and Wandsworth) Libraries. The results of the joint tendering will be known in the next few weeks. The by-election provides an opportunity to put pressure on the Croydon Tories to think very carefully about whether to accept a bid and finalise a contract or to abandon out-sourcing the service. It also provides an opportunity to obtain promises about safeguarding the funding for the heritage and archives service. This is vital given the failure of the Tory controlled Council to value local cultural organisations and heritage. Cultural activities have a particularly important role to play at a time of recession, growing depression among those adversely affected. Although also being a Tory controlled Borough Wandsworth sees heritage as an important part of its activities, as I know as a member of its Partnership group with local amenity and historical organisations.
The by –election also provides an opportunity for a detailed debate about the future of the local economy and Labour will need to put forward a set of robust proposals rather than generalised waffle.
The statistic that one in four Croydon kids are in the poverty trap, alongside the collapsing economy in Croydon, the lack of action to support the business victims of last year’s riots, makes it increasingly urgent for the development of a local economic strategy for the Borough which will address the real needs of the local people and not the profits that developers think they may be able to make.
Poverty takes many forms. Low income is just one factor. Other factors include long term health problems, as first identified by Professor Peter Townsend at the Child Poverty Action Group in the 1970s (‘the inequalities of health’), at a time that the late Malcolm Wicks and I were active members. Croydon North needs a new MP who will continue to work on the economic and anti-poverty challenge, continuing the real legacy of Malcolm Wicks, not just paying lip service to it.
Croydon’s Health and Wellbeing Board’s strategy for 2013-18 notes that people with long term conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory problems are the most intensive users of local health services, and the numbers will grow.
The electoral wards which experience the highest child poverty are Fieldway (46%), New Addington (40%), Broad Green and Selhurst (36%), Woodside and S. Norwood (33%), Waddon 31%, Thorton Heath and West Thornton (29%). Norbury is 24%.
Should we be surprised? Back in 2004 I undertook a project for what became South London Law Centres assessing the incidence of social deprivation including Croydon. Although Croydon was not in the worst tranche of local authority areas marked by social deprivation, there were a number of wards which resulted in the Borough being included in the 88 Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy Boroughs allocated special funding. The Government’s 2000 analysis of deprivation in measured every ward and local authority area in England. It combined a number of indicators relating to income, employment, health deprivation and disability, education skills and training, housing and geographical access to services into a single deprivation score for each area. Croydon had 8 wards in the most deprived deciles: worst 10% Fieldway; worst 20% New Addington and Broad Green; worst 30% Whitehorse Manor, West Thornton , Thornton Heath, Upper Norwood and Bensham Manor. Clearly it appears that significant improvements have not happened.
The ConDem Government’s ruthless cuts are particularly being targeted at those living in poverty so the situation will deteriorate.
The Council seems obsessed with the grotesque plans of developers to build yet more unaffordable high-rise apartment blocks, and replace perfectly adequate retail centres, concentrated in the Town Centre, none of which address the real needs of the Borough.
A key issue is how can new jobs of the right kind be created, rather than low paid and insecure ones, or ones which suck in workers from a wide catchment area and which do not benefit those wanting work near where they live? Retail does not have to consists of low quality/pay jobs. As John Lewis and Waitrose show it is not just being members of the partnership that is important, but also training, so that pride in the service and the visual tidiness and cleanliness of the stores. The downside for many people however is that both stores are in the higher price bracket and therefore unaffordable. The Co-op is more expensive than its main rivals. It may claim to be good with food but it does too much promotion of booze, crisps, sweets and chocolate. It clear that store management is muddled and unfocussed, and that staff lack motivation and training.
Economic activity starts with small businesses. If small businesses can survive the first 18 months they have the potential to last and some develop into the next generation of medium sized enterprises. The ideas the creation of a digital hub and a ‘tech city’ cluster of IT buildings in the Town Centre could help stimulate new small businesses as well as provide a solution for empty or underused office blocks. But it is probably dependent on landlords being prepared to offer cheap rentals. The 3 year business rate relief scheme being offered by the Council and the Great London Authority may ease that element of business costs but may stimulate landlords to put rents up by the amount of the saving. Cashflow is often the problem facing the survival of businesses, made worse at the moment with banks calling in loans/overdrafts with little notice.
A local economic strategy that is comprehensive needs to start from a careful analysis of the economic, social and environmental needs of local people and businesses in Croydon, both for the Borough as a whole but also for each neighbourhood. This will become possible once the in-depth local data from the 2011 Census becomes available for analysis. A strategy also needs to factor in the community dimension, and look at alternative ideas suggested by organisations like New Economics Foundation, the Transition Towns movement, Spacemakers, the Meanwhile Project, and the experiences involved in the revitalisation of Brixton Market and the West Norwood Feast. It needs to take into account the creative elements of the former Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy of the 2000s and anti-poverty strategies from earlier decades. Re-visiting previous initiatives such as the 1990s Living Over the Shop can be important to local shopkeepers with underused upper floors.
An important element is building policy and services on the assessed needs of individuals rather than shoe-horning them into generalised service provision. The importance of this was strongly highlighted in 2001 RAMSEP study examining the process of ‘impoverishment’. It suggests that there are three types of poverty: (1) Intermittent/transitory: borders on non-poverty; (2) Overall poverty: involving serious lack of resources, use of survival strategies, and optimism, weak social ties; and (3) Extreme poverty: involves resignation so that there is less control over the environment and evidence loss of identity. Individuals react differently to their deprivation. RAMSEP suggests that reactions involve different levels of loss of control of identify, caused by (1) intensity of material deprivation – low availability of goods enjoyed and/or basic services benefited from; (2) loss of engagement in informal social networks and with formal social networks; and (3) lack of will and capacity to act. It ‘is often possible to enter a vicious circle of impoverishment due to an illness, due to the lack of professional help, due to unstable housing conditions, due to a high crime rate in the areas, etc’. The ConDem assault on every group that comes under the umbrella of RAMSEP’s analysis demonstrates their failure to understand how individuals are adversely affected by their experiences and circumstances.
Going back to providing a digital hub, perhaps the advocates could offer new types of service: free support for local businesses to have websites and email systems set up in a way that supports the ability to trade between each other; and one for community and voluntary organisations to notify each other of their concerns, services, activities and events.
The Croydon North by-election enables the leading candidates to spell out what their economic development and anti-poverty strategies will be. It would also be good if they would promise if elected to initiate an inquiry into the economic and social state of Croydon North through which to develop ideas and networking. If Labour wins such an inquiry would assist it develop a new approach to running Croydon for use in the local election campaign in 2014. This poses a challenge to the way Labour operates locally. Picking the right candidate with an open, enquiring and listening mind, who is not on the usual politician’s ego trip, is therefore crucial.
‘Rapid Appraisal Method of Social Exclusion and Poverty (RAMSEP)’ by Emanuel Mastropietro. (CERFE/European Commission 2001).
Digital Hub ideas:
New Economics Foundation: www.neweconomics.org.
West Norwood Feast: http://westnorwood.spacemakers.org.uk
Meanwhile Project: www.meanwhile.org.uk
Centre for Local Economic Strategies: www.cles.org.uk.
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