Saturday, 26 March 2011

Why I'm Marching (Virtually) Today

I was 16 and taking my O Levels in a Home Counties grammar school when the Conservatives last came to power in their own right. I left school two years later in the middle of a major recession. I was lucky - with 2 A levels I was able to get a succession of temporary jobs and, eventually, a permanent post with a local authority. It didn't pay well, but the work was interesting and, at eighteen, I got the public service bug.

I was the product of a One-Nation Tory household, and worked for a Tory council. The funny thing is that over the course of the six years I spent there, I came to realise that the Conservatives did not have the answers to the problems of the age. Two things happened:

During the miners's strike, a miners' wife applied to me for a uniform grant for her 12 year old son. These grants were only payable when the child moved from primary to secondary school, so I approached my supervisor to see if an exception could be made due to their financial hardship. "No", came the reply (from an otherwise decent human being, for whom I had great respect), "It's his father's choice to be on strike." The Kent coalfield (an area where I had family; my dad's cousin was a Bevin Boy) is now long gone, of course, and who knows what happened to that woman, her husband and her son - I doubt any of them benefitted from the 'economic miracle' of the Yuppie era.

In 1985, I happened to be off sick during the week of the Labour Party conference and happened to be watching the TV coverage of 'that speech' from my sofa. Wrapped in a blanket, and downing Lemsip, I suddenly realised that what he was saying made more sense to me than the conservative values I'd been brought up with. 

A couple of years later, I realised that I probably should have gone to university after all, and took the decision to leave my local authority job and return to full-time education. I moved to Manchester and found, to my delight, that I felt 'at home' in a way I no longer did in the south east.  As a mature student, I was eligible to receive a full grant. I had a part-time job while I was a student, which helped a bit, but I was able to live well, if frugally, on a student grant and left more or less debt free in 1991, emerging back into the workforce in the middle of another Tory-fuelled recession!

At this point, young (ish), and with a good degree from a decent university, I could have headed for the private sector, but I chose to return to local authority work. I spent the next 17 years working to improve the education and life chances of Manchester children. I went in at a fairly low level (this was before the days of graduate recruitment schemes) and it took a while to work my way up the career ladder, but I was proud of the organisation I worked for and that I was giving something back to the city I love. Slowly, my partner and I built quiet, unassuming careers in local government, had children (one of whom is on the autistic spectrum and therefore has a lifetime of misunderstanding and discrimination to overcome in addition to the difficulties her generation will suffer). Life was pretty good from 1997 onwards. We weren't wealthy, but we were finally comfortable (and not having to check every outgoing expense to make sure we weren't overdrawn), our children benefitted from good local authority-run nursery provision and excellent state schools

Nearly two years ago, my career was whipped out from under me like the tablecloth under a full-laid dining table in that rather cheesy Variety trick. The government project I'd been working on was put out to tender, a national contract so large that Manchester City Council was unable to bid for it and it went (inevitably) to one of those faceless BPO's who run so many of our back-office 'public' functions these days. So I, and about 50 colleagues with 200+ years of accumulated experience, were outsourced (and subsequently laid off). And this, it pains to to say, from the New Labour government who were just as blinded by the "private always more efficient" mantra that the Tories trot out. Having now worked in both sectors, the most charitable description I can come up with is that the private sector isn't more effective, it's just differently ineffective.

Nearly a quarter of a century after I first arrived in Manchester, I'm still here, still loving it and desperate about what's being done to it by the current, mandate-less coalition government. I was in local government when George Osborne was doing his (short) stint in Selfridges; I was working for local people when no-one had heard of Nick Clegg (actually, that doesn't give it much age, does it?). For how this government is affecting our family, see my post Incandescent elsewhere on this blog

Only an idiot would claim that no cuts were necessary - thanks to the mess we inherited from an under-regulated banking sector - but I am furious at being labelled a 'deficit denier'. I know that there's a deficit, I acknowledge it needs to be brought down. What I do not accept is that it needs to be brought down at the speed proposed by the coalition, at the expense of growth and by targeting those least able to defend themselves from the impact of the cuts. There is also no way that the un-mandated 'reform' of the NHS or Michael Gove's education policies will bring the deficit down - quite the reverse. They should be seen for what they are - the means by which this morally-bankrupt administration can feather the nests of its shadowy, neocon supporters in the health, education and BPO companies all currently snuffling around the trough.

So, I am not marching today - despite the fact that it's their future we're marching for, I don't want to subject the kids to the tender mercies of the Met, and it would not be fair to subject an autistic child to the level of (good) noise and crowds. I did, though, run my partner into the city centre at 6.30am so he could pick up the Unison coach, and will be doing what I can from a computer.

There is an Alternative, and we should insist on it before George Osborne's ineptitude wrecks the country completely.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Levenshulme and the LibDems (Warning: May Contain Party Politics)

Once upon a time, on the edge of a conservation area in the West Point area of Levenshulme, there were three Victorian houses which had been sub-divided into 12 apartments. Some of the residents had lived there for many years, and were good neighbours. True, there was an old ambulance in the front garden and it looked a bit run-down but no-one really objected, and most people in the area had either lived there themselves or knew someone who had at some time. It was a community. 

Then, about seven years ago, the three houses were bought by a property developer, and all the residents departed very shortly afterwards. The developer called on us, as neighbours, to explain the wonderful plans he had for the site. Now, we've watched Grand Designs and we don't necessarily disapprove of new developments, so we were interested to see what he proposed.

What he proposed to replace the 3 storey Victorian frontage, was a 5 storey, flat roofed development which towered above the existing 2 storey houses adjacent to it, with windows overlooking neighbouring properties, and containing 23 (yes, you read that right) "luxury apartments" with a basement car park (the fumes from which were evacuated by means of vents over my neighbours' boundary about 2 metres away). All this on a corner plot with existing parking problems and at an accident black spot.

Dismayed by these proposals, the community rallied to object to the planning proposal. We put out flyers (this was in the days before social networking sites) and were amazed that the public meeting we convened filled my neighbours's house, with people standing out in the garden to try and hear what was being said. Two of our elected Liberal Democrat councillors attended this meeting. My abiding memory of their contribution was that they bickered with each other, virtually ignoring the contributions of others present.

When the day of the planning meeting came, a lot of us took time off work to attend, and were heartened to find that the council had received over 50 letters of protest about the proposal. The developer, hoping to wrong-foot us, submitted an amended proposal, with a couple of apartments fewer, on 4 storeys, but with a roof garden! Thankfully, the council saw sense and refused the application as being antagonistic to the local plan for the area and a gross over-development of the site. A group of us went and have a coffee in Starbucks and celebrated at least a temporary victory before heading back to Leve.

Within hours of getting back home, leaflets had come through local doors in Levenshulme, with a photograph of the aforementioned LibDem councillors beaming in front of the derelict site, claiming that they had secured a victory over the developer! Those of us who had campaigned to raise awareness locally and printed and delivered publicity, tried to think what the councillors' contribution had actually been and concluded...... very little. 

As I say, it was only a temporary victory. Thwarted, the developer threw his toys out of the pram and let the site deteriorate to the point where demolition rather than restoration is now the only option for the site (and thus, another part of Victorian Levenshulme disappears). Eventually, he was subject to an Enforced Sale and the site offered to a housing association for development. However, with the advent of the Coalition, funding for social housing ground to a halt and the site is now back up for sale as a development, so the whole cycle will start again.

The interesting thing about this about this story, though, is the attitude of the LibDem councillors who, unaccountably, continue to represent Levenshulme. In the 20+ years I've lived here under their stewardship, I've seen the area fall victim to continual neglect, getting very little benefit from the A6 regeneration  monies which have been available elsewhere in the area. The Lib Dems are keen to blame the majority Labour council for this (and yes, they do have 'previous' on this - the baths and Arcadia have been under threat for years), but it does beg the question - "If you are so powerless against the 'tyranny' of the Labour majority, why on earth should we continue to elect you to represent us?"

I see from my Twitter feed from the council meeting this morning that they are continuing with their usual modus operandi of claiming credit for anything good and being conspicuous by their absence when things look bad for them. In a world of change, I suppose we should at least be grateful that this never changes.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Dear Insurance Industry.....

I phoned my insurer the other day to amend my cover as we are buying a very safe, boring, MPV to accommodate our growing family. I was quoted an additional £200 to take me up to my renewal date in September, which seemed a bit steep for 6 months, but there you go. It's a slightly bigger car and so forth...

When I called back today to confirm this, I was informed that the additional premium was, in fact, £300. When I queried this, the call handler checked my records and found that the lower quote originally given reflected my status as 'married' whereas in fact, I am a co-habitee, and therefore classed as 'single'

A co-habitee, I might add, of 23 years with 2 children by the same partner, a joint mortgage taken out in 1993 and a bread-maker - how much more "responsible" does it get?

I explained that had there been an option of 'cohabiting' when I first applied for the insurance, I would have selected it, and would only have opted for 'married' as the status which most closely matched my lifestyle (and therefore insurance risk). On checking back at the website, 2 options are given: "Married or Civil Partner" (ie, a couple) or "Single" (er- single). I had made the not unreasonable presumption that what they were asking was "Are you part of a couple or on your own?", which would have made some sense in order to determine whether I was likely to go gallivanting off at high speed without a care in the world, or try and keep my family safe on the road.

Price comparison websites do give the option of 'cohabiting' and government agencies use the definition of 'living with someone as if you are married' for a whole range of benefits, taxation, etc. (for this reason, I am unable to claim JSA because of my partner's income), so why on earth should I be classed as single? I haven't been single since the 80's!

A very quick web search suggests that insurers often lower premiums for married couples as this, apparently, equates to "responsibility" regardless of the length of marriage or quality of driving. In a week that saw a challenge to the discounts applied to female drivers on the grounds of discrimination, surely it's time to look at all generic discounts which are not directly related to claims experience and risk? In an age when the pop-up ads on Facebook can be directly targeted at the individual, it should be possible for car insurance to be based on the individual's circumstances and driving history.

A friend of mine, of a similar age and with a similar vehicle and driving history, is separated from her husband but cannot afford to go through formal divorce proceedings. As a result, she can still claim to be married and receive the discount, even though she is living as a single person. True, she is no less "responsible" because of that, but then neither am I.

I have held a full UK licence for 25 years, have never had to make a claim, never had any penalty or speeding points added to my licence. My driving ability is in no way connected to my marital status, and so to penalise me for not holding a wedding certificate seems entirely nonsensical. Having said that, I'm quite used to being considered a second class citizen in the eyes of politicians and moralisers for my stand against the dubious institution of marriage; I am hoping that the pending court case regarding heterosexual civil partnerships is successful, as this far better reflects the commitment that I wish to make to my partner. Some inheritance rights would be nice, too.

I don't really complain about the cost of fuel (the price, after all, of polluting the planet) or road tax, What I do object to is the obscene amounts of money insurance companies grab from us for compulsory insurance, based on actuarial tables which deal in generalities. My Manchester post code immediately hikes up the premium, despite the fact that ours is a relatively law-abiding area without too much vehicle crime. By the standards of some of my friends, my premium is fairly low - many younger drivers, even those with excellent driving histories, are paying thousands a year just to stay on the road. And, of course, this leads to increasing numbers of uninsured drivers, thus causing a vicious cycle of rising premiums for the rest of us. The question, "Why do they charge so much?" appears to have one answer - "Because they can."

The one advantage of the 'Big Brother' level of personal information which is held about us today should surely be that goods and services can be fine-tuned to our circumstances? It would be nice to get recognition that a 48 year old co-habitee with 2 kids and a good driving record is just as good a claims risk as a 48 year old married woman with 2 kids. Since when was my driving ability determined by the man ( in my case, a non-driving man) in my life?