An Austere Winter


It’s harder and harder to keep up as Austerity begins to bite in earnest. Alarming homeless figures are relentlessly hammered home; 2000 children in Brighton & Hove alone, for example. These then become mild in comparison with dire predictions as to what might happen in 2017 when the Universal Tax Credit and Housing Benefit Cap start to reap a harvest of misery. The Council proudly announce plans to build 1,000 new affordable homes just as the Argus reports on how badly they lag behind in their social housing plans – how many previous promises have not yielded affordable homes or units with disability access. Instead the developer who bought the property with solemn promises to think of social needs sells it on to another, and then another before a fourth or fifth promptly decides to build more student accommodation or luxury apartments for wealthy Londoners who want a taste of Brighton.

The Prime Minister seeks to take the UK out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. There are daily reports of victims of cruel fit-for-work assessments, dying within days of being declared okeydokey and having their help slashed. Others, dealing with stress on a level unimaginable for most, cannot cope with the added uncertainty, the hostility doled out to them by those paid to help them and their families attest that the additional pressures hastened a tragic end. Poignant when you add names and faces to the statistics. People like you and me who were unfortunate enough to suffer from a health-setback, now derided, suffering verbal and physical abuse on the streets as freaks, interrogated according to infuriatingly impenetrable bureaucratic logic, labelled as useless ‘benefit scroungers’. They leave behind grieving spouses and children, torn by the pain of missing a loved one instead of just another statistic. Their cries for help are beginning to get heard but many of whom they are intended for turn their heads away. They’ve got rent to pay, rely on the food banks to stretch their meagre salaries: Enough on their plate – or rather, not enough. Or else they fear the intrusion of unpleasantness in the warm comfort of their homes – cosy castles with drawbridges up and gates barred now that social problems increasingly manifest themselves on our cold and wet wintry streets.

It isn’t hard to put two and two together, the United Nations report condemning the UK for its treatment of the disabled isn’t built on rumours. Human rights violations have become commonplace. More and more cases are reaching the courts and it’s in the government’s interest to redefine human rights on its own terms, before the European Court starts making formal conclusions as to utter transformation of the DWP under Tory rule and how that has affected the culture of public servants as a whole – including that of Brighton & Hove City Council.

Perhaps it won’t even matter. Republican politicians in the USA are proposing a bill to withdraw the United States of America from the United Nations and withdraw diplomatic immunity to UN employees, which would force the UN to relocate, probably a shadow of its former self. All mention of human rights related issues have disappeared from the White House web page, replaced by promises to bolster law and order. The Russians last week decriminalised domestic violence and, following May’s example, announced that the Russian Federation should not necessarily be bound by international treaties on human rights.

The NHS is under siege, pictures of A&E ward corridors paint the chaos one would expect in the aftermath of a wartime bombing raid. Eyewitness stories by doctors and nurses reinforce the sense of crisis. The health system is teetering. Nothing’s the matter, the government tries to assure us, all is well, fake news, and if anything is the matter then the blame lies squarely with migrants, GPs, nurses, surgeons, patients and the price of painkillers.

Problems are blithely denied or reformulated in obscure Osbornian calculations. Health Care, Social Services, Disability benefits, the housing crisis timebomb.

An email comes in from the RSCH. What are they to do with the increasing cases of lost souls, including whole families, who, just made homeless, turn to the hospital in a desperate quest for shelter on a cold winter’s night? RSCH can’t house them, there is a shortage of beds as there is. They’ve got a day team for dealing with homeless walk-ins, but there is no such team during the night shift. Are they really to turn them out on the street? They’ve called the police who say they don’t have an answer either. Turn them out on the street, call StreetLink, tell the unfortunate newly made homeless family to stay put in a visible place and hope an outreach team is available to kick-start the processes needed for emergency accommodation within a day or two. I don’t add that in the case of families there is more chance of being temporarily housed if the father takes off with a tent and a sleeping bag to survive as best as he can for that would increase the chances of the mother and children to be placed in one of the many privately owned emergency accommodations, where they will share a corridor, possibly a kitchen and bathroom, with hardened drug addicts, bullies and men who don’t make a secret of their sexual interest in the newcomers. Until recently BHCC has done their utmost to keep the dire conditions in these places a secret, working together with the landlords to bully potential complainers into shutting up.

One such father recently pleaded with a BHCC Councillor. His wife and child were in emergency accommodation but he wasn’t allowed to visit them. How could it be humane that a man wasn’t allowed to visit his child at a time of family crisis?

The Councillor’s answer was ruthless and clueless. Why couldn’t they just meet up for a coffee near the emergency accommodation, there were plenty of establishments in the vicinity. A typical ‘why don’t they eat cake’ response. They simply have no idea what it’s like to scrape by. I’ve heard it often enough myself. Why can’t you just get a new phone? That laptop is ancient, why not replace it? Haven’t you got any other shoes than that battered pair? Why can’t you just sacrifice 20% of your weekly income by buying your family a single round of drinks at Starbucks? They decide and judge from positions of relative comfort, using their own lives and salaries as a measure of what is and isn’t reasonable.

New items are added to the list. The surreal, the absurd. The right fringe of the Conservative Party and UKIP, still shrilly yelping their perceived victory about taking the country back, now also feel encouraged to propose ever more ludicrous ideas. OAPs could replace EU migrants by being put to work, picking fruit in the fields. Unemployed people and disabled people should be barred from driving to ease traffic congestion. The NHS should be sold altogether, people will just have to get private health insurance…..or work harder if they can’t afford it.

The speed with which one item of bad news is followed by the next seems designed to suckerpunch us into numb acceptance. I can scribble the occasional blog, but where to start fighting back against the tide of despair that threatens to overwhelm us? How to reach the multitude who still believe we are a compassionate society and are averse to being told this is no longer the case. One day they’ll wake up and realise that every service they ever relied upon or hoped to rely upon in bad times has been shredded. By then it will be too late to reverse the near irreparable damage which will have been inflicted by Austerity.

People joke about Victorian times but that is becoming awfully close to the truth. Families split up to facilitate their progress through an increasingly privately owned system. The woman I spoke of, with her five-year-old son and minus her husband, revenge evicted by the private landlord of the slumlike emergency accommodation for speaking to the press about conditions there. Back on the street, intentionally homeless now that she made it ‘impossible’ for herself in that which was offered. A paraplegic left trapped on a second floor flat without a lift – the Council indifferent to his plight and seemingly content to let him die up there. The poor actively encouraged to move elsewhere in the country, since they obviously can’t afford to live in Brighton & Hove. Moves to concentrate the disabled in institutions where there care needs can be met with less effort…..presumably by private contractors who will try to do so at minimal cost so they can profit.

Where does this all end? What dystopian vision drives these austere policies? The question which haunts me the most is why on earth politicians who profess to represent the ideals of Labour participate in the dehumanisation of vulnerable people at the bottom of the social heap? Isn’t that party meant to stand up for the disenfranchised? To right wrongs? To fight injustice? Because here in Brighton and Hove they are not, they are a mere shadow of what Labour is meant to stand for, still occasionally making the right noises but no longer walking their talk.

I am increasingly minded of the ending of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”







2 thoughts on “An Austere Winter

  1. A thought provoking well considered article – frighteningly true. IMHO, the sell off of Council housing stock that began in mid-80’s kicked this all off. Councils are now at the beck and call of private landlords most purely profit focused and most ill-equipped to deal with vulnerable members of society or even give a damn. You mention sell of off developments granted planning permission based on a promise of a % social housing and disabled adapted units. The Astoria is a prime example. Listed Building bought in 2003 by percussionist music firm Stomp who failed to raise funding to restore and re-launch as dance venue. Sold to Mike Hollands’ firm around 2011, who did not develop, sold circa 2 years later to Hyde Properties (allegedly for £1), who did nothing with it except applied for PP which was originally turned down, sold to Knightsbridge Student Housing in approx 2014, who re-branded as Three Sixty who achieved achieved planning permission in Jan 2017 for 70 one, two, three bed units, 40% of which for social housing and none for student housing scheme but had unbeknown to the local community attending the 13/12/2016 Appeals hearing, already been sold on to errrrrrr The Student Housing Company …….. and with a design that includes a dining hall, study areas, community room, bike store ……..errrrrr clearly not aimed at student private rental then ? Oh and despite inclusion of 4 ground floor wheelchair adapted units, non-conditional, both disabled parking spaces will be removed ………… go figure.

    Liked by 1 person

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