Monday, 28 April 2014

Things (including Food) Are Hotting Up...

It's election time again.

The emerging issue in Levenshulme appears to be that of takeaway food outlets. The incumbent councillor, James Henningan (LibDem), has launched a Facebook campaign, "Say No to Levenshulme's Takeaway Mile", asking people to sign a petition with the preamble:

"Stockport Road has changed beyond recognition and everytime one of our independent shops close - it seems to be replaced by another fast food outlet."

Now, it's a catchy petition title, and taps into local concerns about the main Stockport Road (A6), Levenshulme's "shop window" to the rest of the city (and the country - it's the main route out to Stockport and Cheshire, which is presumably why UKIP tried placing billboards on the southbound carriageway last year). His assertion is that we already have 'enough' takeaways (currently about 12% of the total commercial properties in the area).

Let's leave aside the negative tone of Councillor Hennigan's campaign - telling us what we don't want rather than asking us what we do (he's also a bit reluctant to engage with people who disagree with him on this), and the spin that the local Labour council is somehow encouraging takeaways to come to Levenshulme to bring its 'quota' of them up to the citywide limit of 20%, and consider whether the campaign has any real merit beyond it being something he can get in the papers with. He can't point to LibDem success in dissuading the Tories from the worst excesses of national policy, and the alleged economic recovery certainly isn't being felt this far north of Westminster....

Judging by the comments his campaign has attracted, it seems as if it's the general appearance of the area which people feels lets us down, rather than the alleged preponderance of hot food outlets. Now, I'm a naturally curious person and have lived in Leve for over 25 years. I know that a number of independent shops have closed in that time, and we no longer have, for example, the shoe shop, Poysers motor shop, Grace Fabrics (?) curtain and haberdashery, and at least two greengrocers and three more butchers that were here when I moved in. Not to mention the pubs that have closed - The Railway, The Pack Horse, The Church Inn, all of which are either empty or gone completely.

But in a previous life I analysed statistical data for a living, and every "fact" I see on a topic like this makes me say, "Ah, but...." and go looking for an explanation, confirmation or refutation.

With this in mind, I spent a happy evening last weekend doing a virtual trawl of the A6 on Google maps, making a note of each of the premises in the ward. I even included a small section on the east side that falls within our neighbouring ward (itself a bone of contention - why is half of Levenshulme in Gorton South ward? Ask the Electoral Commission!). I wanted to see if we really are overrun with takeaways (especially, the 'chicken shops' which seem to get cited on local discussion threads). 

As a result of this, I found that we currently have, as Councillor Hennigan suggests, about 12% takeaways (this goes up slightly to around 14% if you include those in the Gorton South ward).

In today's Manchester Evening News is an article on the subject which states that Takeaway Owners Back Crusade to Tackle Levenhulme's Fast Food Mile in James Hennigan states that "it's getting to the stage where there are just too many." and that "many have their shutters down during the day, hampering efforts to revitalise the high street."

In support of his case, two local takeaway owners are quoted. One says that he is "now struggling as rival outfits have begun to pop up at an alarming pace" and another that "It has been over the last two years. Before that everything was running right, but everybody is just surviving now."

This piqued my interest even more. The Google images I had scoured were all taken in 2012.  Maybe things had really changed over the last two years. So I decided to walk the whole of the A6 from one ward boundary to the other. I deliberately excluded premises away from the A6 - after all, it's a positive thing if residential areas are served by local takeaways rather than everyone having to pile on to the A6 for them, and because it was the impact on the A6 'high street' that I wanted to assess (not least because referring to a 'Takeaway Mile' suggests the long - nearly 2 miles - main route from border to border).

I found some interesting things:

There have been some changes of business, but in the main fast food outlets aren't chief among them. Most new businesses since 2012 have been health and beauty or solicitors/accountants. Some food outlets have changed hands but have remained selling the same or similar products. Several of the takeaways from 2012 have now ceased to be fast food outlets.

A major fast food restaurant right in the centre of the high street  had its shutters open at mid-day today, whereas many of the hairdressers and barbers did not (it being Monday, a traditional day off for them), and including one of the takeaways mentioned in the article.

Notably, we only have three national chain takeaways - McDonalds and KFC at the southern end of the ward, and the ubiquitous Subway. Many of the other takeaways and restaurants are independently-run family businesses providing livelihoods for local families, which is somewhat different to Councillor Hennigan's assertion that they "bring nothing to the area."

So whether we have "too many" takeaways already, or whether we can't/shouldn't absorb any more,  it's clearly not the case that there has been a massive expansion over the last two years. I would argue that if we want a more varied high street, we have to be positive about the businesses that are already there and actively encourage others to join them, which is undermined by headlines about "crusades" to deter certain businesses - if I were a potential investor in the area, I would think twice if I thought I would get a hostile reception. Levenshulme is by no means unique in having a 'challenged' high street - it happens all over the country, but the problem goes far wider than any one kind of business, and the solutions are more complex. Whatever commercial pressures local businesses are subject to, competition from an increasing number of rivals wouldn't appear to be the whole story.

And while I hear some of you saying "Well, she would say that. Just another Labour activist toe-ing the party line and point-scoring at election time" this is not one of my political blog posts. I am quite capable of holding opinions of my own and - occasionally - disagreeing with the Labour Party! I would be interested to hear a a detailed explanation of the rationale behind the 20% takeaway limit; how it was arrived at and the reasoning behind it. Then I can decide how many is "too many" without reference to Councillor Hennigan.


Monday, 21 April 2014

A Modern Nation

I've been watching with some alarm at the pernicious fundamentalism creeping into public life in this country. The increasingly hardline pronouncements from former moderates, the assertion that we should all share certain values and follow a religious philosophy which discriminates against sections of society, the demonising of dissenting voices, the promotion of a 'state' based on religion. No, I really don't like David Cameron's new-found 'evangelical' brand of Christianity.

Let's  put aside for a minute that new-found piety, along with patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. We know that this is vote-seeking, UKIP-neutralising hypocrisy. Let's just consider what (if he was genuine, which he isn't), Cameron thinks our nation should look like in the 21st century.

So what does Christianity "bring to Britain"?

"All over the UK, every day, there are countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ"

None of these acts, it has to be said, from the current government, whose most notable self-declared Christian (IDS) has been responsible for driving the sick and disabled to suicide (still a sin in the Catholic church to which he belongs).

"The heart of Christianity is to ‘love thy neighbour’ and millions do really live that out."

Although a fair number of Cameron's party voted against equal marriage and support 'Christians' who refuse to allow gay couples to stay in their bed and breakfast establishments, portraying them as "persecuted."

"And we saw that same spirit during the terrible storms that struck Britain earlier this year. From Somerset to Surrey, from Oxford to Devon, churches became refuges, offering shelter and food, congregations raised funds and rallied together, parish priests even canoed through their villages to rescue residents. They proved, yet again, that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds."

And common humanity and decency motivated people with no faith to do the same!

The fundamental problem with ascribing all good deeds to faith is that it simply ignores the fact that all over the country people of no faith live their lives according to decent principles and strive to make life better for their fellow citizens. He does concedes that "many non believers have a moral code" (big of him!), but clearly considers this inferior to one underpinned by Christianity. He states that "some atheists and agnostics [do] not understand that faith could be a 'guide or helpful prod in the right direction' towards morality." Aside from this being patronising tosh, he doesn't for a moment seem to consider that it's not a lack of understanding but a lack of demonstrable evidence that faith necessarily leads to morality that makes atheists and agnostics doubtful of its worth.

We should, apparently, be "more confident about our status as a Christian country." Except that we aren't a Christian country in the way that we were up until the 20th century - today we should aspire to  be a modern, multi-ethnic, culturally-diverse country where people of all faiths and none are treated with equal respect and tolerance, and we have a way to go on that one.

I'll happily declare myself as an atheist who has been advocating the separation of church and state for as long as I can remember. I don't "have a problem" with faith (although I do have one with organised religion as a tool of social control), but it is a very personal thing and should not be entwined with the offices of state. Equally, I'm not in favour of the kind of rigorous legislative secularism which is found in France, for example. Just as intolerant in its own way.

I have many friends who are people of faith for whom I have great respect and admiration, but I don't feel the lack of such faith in my life, and the true people of faith respect that about me (even if they don't understand it). Equally, there are some atheists that I find very tiresome; Richard Dawkins has become a parody of himself, knee-jerk reactions replacing reasoned thought. And being an atheist doesn't excuse Ricky Gervais being a spiteful bully.

Significantly, though, it is not people of faith but politicians who think that religion should play a part in politics. I have always been deeply suspicious of politicians who feel the need to tell you how much their faith informs what they do (especially as it so often involves some very nasty stuff!), and I'm very much in the Alastair Campbell camp on the matter of whether we should "do God" in politics. Whatever your personal faith, you do not have the right to impose it on others. 

Cameron is right in one respect, though. Christians are now a minority. Yesterday's news carried a piece about garden centres being prohibited from opening on Easter Sunday. This, according to the garden centre managers, means a loss of income (very much part of the Easter message!). No consideration of allowing shop staff a rare day with their families to celebrate the Christian church's most important day, just loss of profit. The customers who were vox-popped all seemed to think that Easter is about the ability to buy bedding plants! 

What Christians in this country aren't, though, is a "persecuted minority". Refusing to comply with your employer's dress code and being disciplined for it is not persecution. Being prevented from exhibiting bigotry in contravention of the law of the land is not persecution. I'm staggered by quite how little respect this attitude affords Christians in parts of the world where they are still murdered on the basis of their faith. 

I am quite happy to live my life without a god, but happy for others to do otherwise if they wish. It should, though, be a very personal matter, and the state should not be co-opting religion. When I am afforded the same respect and tolerance for my lack of faith that I afford others I shall be more than happy, but we are a long, long way from that in modern Britain. So, Mr Cameron, enough with your false piety and 'morality'. I don't like your 'faith' any more than I like your politics (and the same goes for Blue Labour!).

In the words of Dave Allen:

"Goodnight, and may your god go with you."