Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Do the gay maths...

Oh, how I love it when Melanie Phillips writes something so outrageous that my Twitter feed goes into a complete spin – or laughs it off. The beauty of social networking sites is that they can instantly make humour out of a situation.

Here's a good one:

Marcus is going out on Friday and Saturday night, but he also has a dinner date on Tuesday, and a lunch to attend on Thursday. How many spray tans will he need? #gaymaths”

Or, more more ironically:

Q: Steven and Martin live in Bristol, and decide to book three nights away for a romantic weekend break at a small town in Cornwall. If they arrive on the Thursday afternoon, what is the likelihood (in percentage terms) that they will be returning home on Thursday evening?

A: According to the hotel's website "there are no petty restrictions, you can come and go as you like”...


There are, justifiably, plenty of people writing about the wave of homophobia which has hit public life recently. It may be tempting, but I'm not going engage in a round of Melanie Phillips-bashing. She's barmy enough as it is, and probably best left in her own mad, sad little world. I'd love to think that we could “build a paywall around the Daily Mail website to keep the articles in", as David Schneider proposed, but it's never going to happen until Melanie meets her maker, or the Mail goes bankrupt.

Phillips, of course, is no stranger to this sort of controversy and nor is the Mail. But Phillips does join a hateful festival of vitriol which has been playing since Steven Preddy and Martin Hall won their court battle against the Chymorvah Hotel for its refusal to accommodate them in a double room.

Hot on the heels of Roger Helmer's ignorant outburst (and a later article on Conservative Home), we witnessed the brief appearance of a blogpost by Richard Drax MP in which he slurred the “questionable sexual standards” of gay and lesbian people in the context of Phillips' unhinged rant about gay maths.
And there's a vocal cabal of Tories who are doing everything they can to undermine Cameron's new fluffy approach to LGBT issues.

In the open comments section of his blog, I asked Richard Drax what it was exactly what it was about my sexual orientation that he found so questionable. Was it the fulfilled and happy social life I enjoy with like-minded friends, some of whom also happen to be gay? Or maybe the loving and committed relationship I share with my boyfriend? A matter of hours later and the blogpost was gone, replaced by a mumbled half-apology and a restating of his not-originally-coherent views on education in schools.

It looks like Drax may have been got at by the Tory high-command, although quite how Roger Helmer got away with it, I don't know. But a new surge of homophobic sentiment seems to be creeping in from the Tory right.

I'm no fan of conspiracies, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone, somewhere amongst the Tory backbenches is crying out 'please bring back Section 28'. And if they aren't, isn't it being inferred anyway?

One theory is that an increasing number of backbenchers are so incensed by the realities of the coalition that they're keen to make as much trouble for David Cameron as possible. That we know already in fact, judging by the recent rebellion over Europe. And, if you were under any further illusion that the new breed of Tory was somehow more progressively aligned, take Dominic Raab MP's tirade in the London Evening Standard today.

I hope, (and I do believe) that Cameron personally will not stand for anti-gay sentiment, but his inconsistent approach in dealing with ignorance, let alone outright homophobia in his party makes a mockery of the new, fluffy-bunny-Toryism. And Cameron is too damaged by his own past failures to let his party return to its default setting of prejudice.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Big trouble in the big society

How one local authority is facing a 46% budget cut

Will the citizens of Hastings take up the reins of the Big Society?

Hastings is a seaside resort famous for its connection with the Norman conquest. In 1066, William the Bastard became William the Conqueror after his victory at the Battle of Hastings, defeating Harold II as King. It led to William securing control of most of England, but twenty years of rebellion and resistance.

Today, Hastings is somewhat less concerned with dramatic occupations, and more in keeping the fabric of essential local services intact. A
Labour-led borough council – unique south of London – is opposed by a docile Conservative party which steadfastly refuses to condemn the severity of the cuts which have hit the council. The area's Tory MP, Amber Rudd, even goes so far as to call the cutbacks “an opportunity”.

But in the words of the council itself, Hastings has just been handed “the toughest settlement in living history”. And this is a town which knows a thing or two about tough settlements.

Local government took a massive blow in the aftermath of October's comprehensive spending review. Over the next four years, government funding to local authorities will decrease by a total of 28%. Hastings loses an astounding 46% of its total funding; £3.6 million from an Area Based Grant (cut altogether), and its Formula Grant cut from £9.1 million to £7.7 million. A 'transition fund' replaces some of the lost funding - £2.6 million in 2011/2012 – but this too is reduced next year by around a fifth. Like other Labour-led councils, which are suffering disproportionately through the loss of central government grants, Hastings is emerging from the shock of the CSR to deal with the reality of cutting essential services as well as generators of economic growth.

Labour Councillor Paul Barlow “fell in love with the town” when he moved from inner-city London in 2003, just after a substantial amount of government grants had been awarded to breathe new life into the area. “I wanted to buy somewhere for an investment,” says Barlow, who came to work for a regeneration company, recognising the potential of what could have been just another unloved seaside town. His talents have recently been rewarded with a cabinet post, without any single portfolio, helping to run the council in an extraordinarily tough economic environment.

Barlow's 'patch' reflects a personal passion for regeneration and renewal, covering the Castle Ward, which aside from the castle itself, and everything from the railway station to the main shopping areas and the beach. It also includes the famous Victorian pier ravaged by fire in October and now the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund application to restore it to former glory. A feature of the seafront is distinctive Georgian architecture, much of which seems to be looked after a lot better now than it has done for years. A variety of thriving independent businesses dominate the town centre: only a branch of Costa stands out as a rare concession to the global coffee giants.

Under Labour, Hastings received substantial public investment. The Priory Quarter office development is a prime example of the sort of boost – a speculative office development that has coaxed major employers such as Saga, which brought 800 jobs to the town. The new Sussex Coast College offers degree level courses to a young population habitually bound by the confines of the borough and lacking in aspiration. But despite these redeeming features, Councillor Barlow's ward is still the 29th most deprived in the UK.

Barlow is understandably proud of the progress over the last ten years or so, and is keen to emphasise the council's overall vision for the town: 

“Many seaside towns like Hastings fell into a spiral of decline in the 1960s and 1970s because there was no-one to drive things forward and councils allowed the downward spiral to continue. When we took control in 1998 much of the seafront was semi-derelict, but using our planning powers we forced landlords to use their own money in refurbish their properties.  

"The council's own 'Grotbusters' team helped out, working with owners of run down buildings to help bring properties up to scratch.

We've now changed the seafront so dramatically, at one point the town even ran out of scaffolding!” laughs Barlow.

Indeed, the pleasant surroundings of the
White Rock Hotel, where I meet Barlow, is testament to the general improvement of the area.

But Barlow is fearful that this sort of progress could be reversed:

“We recently won money for developing the fishing industry in the town from the European Union, but a lot of our regeneration staff are paid for from area-based grants – which are going completely. So, we lose much of our regeneration funding, and the ability to put forward applications for new money.

“These people provide a lot of added value to the town. But we're losing experience that we've built up. And if the council doesn't provide direction and funding, who does?”

In the aftermath of the spending review, Barlow has to help make decisions on what, if any of this sort of work can be continued.

“There are things we have to do, like development control, but there's very little guidance on what you have to provide. We will have to bring things down to a level we think is safe, and look at what else we've got left in terms of savings.” 

In that case, what happens when the council says they can't afford to certain things any more? Isn't the Big Society already waiting in the wings, geared up to provide services more cheaply?

Unsurprisingly, Barlow is sceptical of this notion. 

“It's rather patronising to assume that there are lots of people just waiting to take over – there aren't.”

Barlow questions the benefit of increased involvement by the voluntary sector: 

“They may have a different angle. But it's hard to think what else we could outsource - there's no way any other organisation can provide a lot of things cheaper. Local government is already the most efficient way of doing a lot of things. 

“Much of the regeneration money goes through the council's budget to Hastings' voluntary sector. The Pier and White Rock Trust already has some great people doing a full-time job voluntarily. But as a result of cuts in our regeneration budget, we're going to see a smaller 'Big Society'. It will contract and shrink as a result of the cuts." 

Barlow points out that the council have already begun to consult with local residents about what's most important to them. 

“We had a borough wide conversation about people's priorities. Not what about we improve, but what we dramatically reduce, or cut. People prioritised safety things, environmental issues, cleaner streets - a greener town. 

“Lower down on their agendas are things like arts and the theatre. But we're a small council, and very often services are provided by just one or two people. If you make a 40% cut in some arts services you end up stopping it altogether. The severity of this is pretty much out of the blue, and we're still in the process of going through what's possible”.

Barlow is convinced that central government fundamentally misunderstands what local authorities like Hastings actually do. He argues that local government is an essential co-ordinator of services, not necessarily responsible for carrying them out. 

“They've a weird idea that local government is a monolith, but most money simply goes through us to organisations that work on our behalf. And there's this myth that people will provide things for free - that's not going to happen. Even the Friends of the Park requires office space and structured professional support to keep them going. And we're already engaging local people in the management of the park”.

Does Barlow have any faith in the government's vision for more localism?

“The net impact of localism so far has been zero because we have no resources to achieve it.

“We have some staff for example, who help develop community forums. But when you no longer have the grants for these kinds of things, how do they happen? You just get the same people coming forward at planning meetings and organising petitions”.

In the light of all this, what successes might Barlow have to his name in five years' time?

“We're going to be hard pressed to identify great achievements.

“I suppose I'm quite lucky in that I've been able to take control of a trust which, under an Elizabethan agreement, dictates that an area of land between high tide and low tide would be given for the benefit of the people of Hastings. It got drowned by council bureaucracy, which we managed to unpick. What we have now is a large area of the foreshore which is now land – not underwater – including fairgrounds and a car park – and which has an income. Once the trust pays off its costs, there's an opportunity for the excess to be spent in a targeted way. We can focus it on the most needy in Hastings and St Leonards – and possibly some seafront improvements."

At the same time, Barlow is realistic about his political responsibilities:

“My main role, as local campaign co-ordinator for the Labour party - is to see that our Conservative MP has a short tenure, and that she's replaced by a Labour MP. The previous Tory MP only lasted one term – and the way the current MP is going, she could follow him.

“If we can keep things ticking over in a way that protects the most vulnerable – that's probably the best achievement we can hope for”. 


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