Britain 2017. What’s missing is Empathy

I’ve been thinking about the awful state of Britain at the moment. Why are we in such a sad state of affairs? I read a headline this morning – ‘Broken Britain’ – and it struck such a dreadfully sad chord with me.

On Friday I watched a video of our PM, Theresa May, being interviewed about the appalling fire at Grenfell Tower on Tuesday night this week. She was asked again and again about the victims of the fire and why nothing was yet in place to help the survivors. She avoided giving any direct answers. In fact, she basically ignored the questions and just kept reiterating what she wanted to say. It was an eight min interview, but to be honest it might as well have been one minute because all she just kept doing was repeating herself.

What I was staggered at was the total lack of compassion she showed, there was, sadly, zero empathy for the loved ones, the friends, the neighbours of those involved and for the people who had so horrifically lost their lives. Her words sounded hollow. Right adjectives but spoken with no conviction. At times you would have thought she was reading a shopping list for all the emotion in what she was saying. There was no sincerity whatsoever.

Today I was reading statements from various Tory MPs regarding cuts to fire services and their opinions on health and safety within buildings. I was also looking at their voting records. It was obvious they all share a common thread. No empathy for anyone. I do wonder what there motives are for pursuing a career in public service. It certainly doesn’t seem to be to uphold the needs of their electorate, more to do with what they can get out of the system for themselves.

By complete contrast I saw a video of Jeremy Corbyn meeting the victims at Grenfell Tower. It was natural for him to put his arm around someone in distress. If you read his voting record he has consistently voted for the interests of the ordinary people. One of his fellow MP’s, Owen Smith, who had previously lost a leadership challenge against him, was recently asked whether it was Jeremy or Labour’s policies that were so popular, he said: “It has to be both. I don’t know what Jeremy’s got but if we could bottle it and drink it we’d all be doing very well.”

I know what Jeremy has, he has a passion to make the world a better place. He tirelessly works to help and support normal people, but most of all, above everything else, he has genuine compassion, understanding and empathy.

If throughout our country there could be a real sense of compassion there would never be children going hungry, no-one would ever consider risking our National Health Service, everyone would want the elderly looked after. Housing would be a priority. There would be support for the disabled and vulnerable.

Who can go to work as a public servant and vote against the needs of ordinary people? We often hear people asking MP’s who have voted in their own interests ‘How do you sleep at night?’ The problem is that the people asking that question have empathy. They care about other people. The councillors/MPs who only vote for their own gains do not care. They can’t possibly. What they seriously lack is even the slightest compassion, an ounce of empathy for those in need.

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Housing Crisis Britain June 2017: The Problem

To be in expensive temporary accommodation or at worse to be homeless, marginalises whole swathes of our society.

At long last people seem to be waking up to the largely hidden injustices within Britain, one of the most important of which is the dreadful lack of housing.

Being born in 1956 I grew up in a very different country to that which I see now. There was a real feeling of hope when I grew up. Even with the inequalities which faced most women in the workplace, there were still opportunities for most people to achieve their aspirations.

I was born in North London but my family moved to Essex when I was only six weeks old. My parents were both brought up in council housing and spent the first five years of their married life renting three rooms whilst saving for a deposit for a home. My Dad was a glass blower and my Mum was a part-time secretary when I was young, so not what you would ever call high earners. Can you believe that with strict budgeting they were able, in their mid twenties, to buy a detached bungalow with a wonderful garden for us to play in? That same bungalow was sold ten years ago for a price in excess of £300,000 and is well beyond the reach of ordinary working class families.

In 1965 we moved to Twickenham, just outside London. Mum and Dad bought a very nice three bed semi overlooking a green. All our neighbours were working class families with children. Dad was still a glass blower and Mum then worked part-time in local estate agents. We were not rich and had to be careful with spending, but the point is that those houses were affordable. Several of my friends lived in council houses which were roomy and well-built and again had lovely big gardens.

Mum and Dads old house in Twickenham is currently on the market at just a shade under £700,000. How many ‘ordinary’ families can possibly hope to buy a house with these crazy prices?

House prices have underlined the utter greed of our society. The estate agents earn commission on the sale prices so they push prices as high as possible. Lenders have continually turned a blind eye to the ridiculous valuations. Land owners have charged increasingly exorbitant prices. Totally unchecked greed.

In 1980 council houses were beginning to be sold off to their tenants under Conservative policies. I remember hearing the news on the radio and had, wrongly as it turned out, assumed that the income from the sales would be re-invested into further social housing. Instead of that the money was ‘ring-fenced’ and councils were not allowed to use that money to re-invest in housing. Rather than re-writing the whole sorry story this a link to an excellent article 
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/26/right-to-buy-margaret-thatcher-david-cameron-housing-crisis

Nothing has been done to halt the lack of housing. What chance do young people have of setting up a home, possibly having children and progressing with their lives under these disastrous circumstances?

Housing is possibly one of the most important issues that any government must address. Too many unscrupulous rich landlords have been able to get away with letting properties in appalling conditions. Nowhere near enough social housing has been built and the majority of the young in our society cannot even consider leaving home until they are in their late twenties or even older.

To be in expensive temporary accommodation or at worse to be homeless, marginalises whole swathes of our society. How can you possibly look favourably to the future when you don’t have a home?

An alternative solution?

From the off I have to say I am not and never have been a housing minister.

However, prior to becoming chronically ill and having to give up work in my early forties, I held a responsible financial position in a reasonably small but successful private company for 20 years. From the late seventies through to the late nineties I had to make decisions every week which didn’t just effect me, but which also affected the twenty or so staff we employed.

Rarely would we find ourselves sailing through calm seas, there always seemed to be some type of crisis to throw us off-course. Recessions, inflation, housing booms, housing busts, exchange rate changes, interest rate fluctuations, budget cuts, even wars etc. etc. It was not always easy.

My life was a constant round of budgets, cash flows and accounts. I had to adjust and adjust, then re-adjust as the sales went up, as the sales went down, as regulations changed, as raw materials became more expensive. More importantly, we often had to find alternative ways to keep the business going. We often went against usual business norms. We invested in new markets when our current markets went into recession. We manufactured as much as we could in-house to keep our costs down and avoid paying excessive profits to outside suppliers. We even made our own boxes for packaging our products and sold the surplus! Oh the joy of it!

Now, almost twenty years on, and often not able to get the energy to even get up most days of the week, my mind still works in the same way. Its like no-one told it that it really is ok to switch off.

So …. I have watched, in total dismay, the dreadful housing crisis that now faces Britain. Not enough houses have been built. Not enough social housing. Those that have been built for sales the open market are generally well beyond the reach of ordinary people on what are, unfortunately, falling wages. The conservatives actually consider that a property with a price tag of £450,000 is affordable. Well it might be to those who are fortunate enough to be born into wealthy families, but certainly not for the majority.

With an average salary of £28,000 there is no way a family can afford to buy a home for such crazy prices. Three times salary was the norm for mortgage borrowing for decades. At that rate a mortgage of £84,000 would be offered. There are very few places, if any, in the UK where prices are that low.

So … there has to be another way forward. There has to be. A different way of utilising social housing budgets. People have to be given the opportunity to put down roots, to make a permanent home and build communities. We have, in this country, had a love affair with bricks and mortar style of building. In many other countries however, they live very comfortably in wooden homes.

I’m not talking garden sheds here or the post war pre-fab homes. Take a look at the lodge type properties you can rent all year round for a holiday throughout the UK. These are light, bright, spacious well insulated homes. Manufactured using modern materials, they will, at worst, with virtually no maintenance, last at least 50 years. The build cost is far less than a conventionally built home. They could be placed on land that is unused, i.e. ex-military bases etc, land that already is designated for future building, and further brownfield sites that could be available.

If the government itself actually set up its own manufacturing of these homes they wouldn’t be paying profits to private companies and I daresay the costs could be reduced still further. If, for arguments sake, only four standard designs were built, from one bed homes to four bed homes, the savings could be advantageous.

There is also a desperate need for housing for the disabled who require one level homes. These would be ideal. If, also, ‘parks’ were designated for people who required physical assistance, how much money could be saved by having a central hub of carers, rather than them spending so much of their times travelling between patients?

Loneliness and isolation is becoming a massive problem for both the disabled and the elderly and again living in a purpose built community could enhance many lives. There have been many successful privately run assisted living developments. These are great, but not everyone can afford to buy.

Family communities could be formed where there were facilities for children, for nurseries etc. With permanent homes people would feel settled and secure.

Other countries have considered new ways to alleviate housing needs. One town in Canada has totally eradicated homelessness. They have actually found that whilst it gives people wonderful opportunities to improve their lives, the actual financial savings of not dealing with the problems of the homeless, have been far in excess of what they imagined,

Nothing is ever perfect, but for the people living in dreadful overpriced, cramped sub-standard hones, this could, I believe, be a possible way forward.