Nicholas Boys Smith: Home alone or terraced friendship?

7 Dec

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and Chairman of the Government’s Design Body Steering Group.

As the nation prepares to emerge, blinking, from Lockdown II, it is worth asking: what consequence is lockdown having on our relationships with those around us? And does where we live, influence this?

During the first lockdown, Create Streets undertook an indicative survey via social media of 438 people into the relationship between where they live and how connected they felt to their neighbours, both before and after lockdown. It was not a controlled survey so can only be indicative. Nevertheless, the breakdown of home types and locations is a reasonable match for the British population with only a modest skew. We therefore believe that, while not definitive, our findings are helpful particularly as some of them corroborate other findings in different countries and decades. We found that:

  • We came together during lockdown. Our study found that people know more of their neighbours than before lockdown, with 37 per cent of people now knowing six or more of their neighbours, compared to just 29 per cent before.
  • Good fences make good neighbours – terraced houses were the best COVID-beaters. Respondents living in terraced houses spoke to more neighbours than those living in other types of house or in flats. 40 per cent interacted with neighbours more than four times a week as opposed to 33 per cent of those living in semi-detached homes or 23 per cent in detached homes. Those living in purpose-built flats were the least likely to speak to their neighbours. 45 per cent of those living in apartment blocks did not interact with their neighbours in any way (over double the rate for terraced homes).
  • Cars appear to stifle neighbourliness. Those who used cars as their main form of transport were less likely to interact with their neighbours in any form (31 per cent), during and after the lockdown, compared to those who walked (25 per cent) or cycled (13 per cent). Cars are also associated with reduced social cohesion at street level. Fourteen percent fewer of those with properties facing busy streets were likely to interact with their neighbours regularly than those who lived on quieter streets.
  • Denser environments do not always guarantee tighter communities. Rural areas had greater levels of social interaction during lockdown compared to suburban and urban areas. Despite proximity, 32 per cent of respondents from urban areas stated they had no interactions with neighbours during and after lockdown. This was double the rate (16 per cent) of those who had no neighbourly interactions in rural areas.
  • Access to greenery is strongly associated with greater neighbourliness. Our research found that both access to front gardens and access to private gardens were associated with many more neighbourly interactions compared to environments with no outdoor space. Of the respondents with no form of outdoor space, 59 per cent did not have any social interactions with neighbours, during and after lockdown compared to 33 per cent from the rest of the sample.

2020 has brought untimely death to many and economic hardship to millions. And worse is yet to come. However, there is a thread of a silver lining. Lockdown has also helped re-forge bonds of neighbourliness and reminded us of what matters in ways which should perhaps never have been forgotten. As we (please heaven) re-find normality in the months to come, can we try to hold on to some of these modest but important upsides? It is worth it. Knowing more of our neighbours makes us happier. So does living in places we find attractive and safe.

The next few months and years are likely to be a period of flux in the spheres of planning, house-building, and highways design. Amongst the certain or probable changes are;

  • The government’s Gear Change Plan for walking and cycling has provided £2 billion of funding to encourage walking and cycling;
  • The new Highway Code is also expected to encourage more sustainable transport with a ‘hierarchy of road users’ where cyclists and pedestrians are at the top;
  • The new Manual for Streets 3 is expected to support street design which is less car-dominated, building on the important work of Manual for Streets;
  • The Urban Tree Challenge Fund is supporting the planting of at least 20,000 large trees and 110,00 smaller trees in English cities and towns;
  • The new model National Model Design Code (following on from last year’s National Design Guide) is expected to give local planning authorities clearer guidance on the creation of new places;
  • The Government has said it intends to implement most of the findings of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I co-chaired alongside the late Sir Roger Scruton and which recommended creating a ‘fast track for homes’ that local people find attractive; and
  • The vision set out in the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, is likely to lead to local plans which are more visual and easier for the affected population to understand.

In this context, our indicative survey has several important suggestions for future highways and planning policy in order to support health, happiness, reduced land use, and public support for new homes. If we want to maximise public health and connectedness, highways policy and design codes should:

  • Create gardens. Local plans and local design codes should require front, back and communal gardens wherever possible (these can be modest in size). These are associated with speaking to your neighbours more which in turns is associated with personal well-being.
  • Create terraced streets. Local plans and local design codes should, wherever possible, support terraced homes. In our COVID survey, these are associated with speaking to your neighbours more than purpose-built flats or semi-detached or detached homes, whilst also being more space efficient.
  • Create quiet streets. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets which design out fast speeds. These are associated with cleaner air and knowing more of your neighbours.
  • Support walking and cycling. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets on which it is easy, pleasant, and safe to walk or cycle. Making it easy to get about by walking or cycling is associated with more neighbourly interactions.

Let’s escape from lockdown but let’s learn from it as well.

Mary Douglas: Defending freedom of speech as a local councillor was a battle worth fighting.

23 Nov

Cllr Mary Douglas represents the Salisbury St Francis and Stratford Division on Wiltshire Council.

Having served as a local councillor for 15 years, I was accused last November of breaching the council’s Code of Conduct because I disagreed publicly with the LGBT ideology promoted by a local Pride march. I explicitly affirmed the dignity and worth of those involved, explaining that it was not the people but their ideology which I opposed. Nonetheless I was accused of discrimination and told that my views were offensive and should not have been expressed.

I contested the accusation with support from the Christian Legal Centre, to whom I would like to express my heartfelt thanks. After enduring considerable personal abuse and a year-long investigation, I was finally exonerated and my right to freedom of speech upheld.

Was it worth it? Yes.

Why? Because freedom of speech matters.

It matters because it is essential for good relationships and good choices. It matters because it enables us to explore together what it is to be human.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech equated my disagreement with disrespect, regarding it as antithetical to good relations. Yet, as we know from our own lives, the respectful expression of disagreement is essential for a healthy relationship.

The community cohesion to which we all aspire is not achieved by imposing one opinion on all, but by all recognising one humanity. It is not achieved by focussing on what makes us different from others, whether class or ethnicity or lifestyle; but by remembering what we have in common.

We are human beings, created in the image of God, of infinite worth, every one. We share a common humanity, a common responsibility to care for one another and a common search for truth and meaning. Remembering that, as we disagree respectfully and listen carefully, we can explore each other’s deepest values. That is the basis for good relationships.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech disagreed strongly with my views and therefore sought to remove them from the public square. Yet, respectful disagreement in the public square is precisely what is required to make good choices. That is one of the strengths of a liberal (from the Latin liber meaning ‘free’) democracy, the essence of which is the free exchange of ideas.

Successful organisations deliberately seek diversity on their Executive Boards, inviting robust debate between different perspectives in order to reach the best decision. In politics, as we face momentous challenges – covid-19, climate change, endemic disinformation – we need every view to be heard.

Similarly, in our personal lives, we do well to listen to those who think differently from us, to imagine the world from their vantage point. Each of us thinks that our view is correct – why else would we hold that view? Yet, we could be wrong. Even if everyone else we know agrees with us, we could all be wrong; group think is notoriously seductive. So, when someone says something with which ‘we all’ disagree, we owe it to ourselves to let them speak.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech felt offended and hurt, and so regard disagreement as harmful to good relationships and want to silence a view with which they strongly disagree. Yet, respectful disagreement is essential for both good relationships and good choices.

So, why do we stifle freedom of speech when it is so clearly beneficial?

I believe it is because we are deeply unsure of who we are. We do not know what it is to be human, so we define ourselves by what differentiates us from each other, such as our beliefs, sexuality, or ethnicity. Yet such things are not up to such a task. They are part of who we are, but they are not us.

We behave like an orphan who feels that they have no choice but to define themself, to fight for their place in the world, to find comfort and meaning wherever they can.

Yet, we are not orphans. We have a Father, who not only created us but has gone to great lengths to make us His children. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God as a human being, all humanity has been adopted, made sons of God, each and every one. An honour not imposed but offered as a gift, no merit required, simply willing receipt.

We are far more than we had realised, we are far greater than we had dared to imagine.

Why is this seldom said in public discourse?

I suspect it is because we are afraid that we might not be permitted to say such a thing.

What a tragedy if we were to miss our very identity because we had lost our freedom of speech.

As I said, freedom of speech matters.

Jonathan Werran: To build back, we need strong and empowered communities

17 Nov

Jonathan Werran is the chief executive of Localis.

At the outset of this crisis, on March 20th, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:

“We want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.”

Eight months on, the cumulative impact of the countless acts of local kindness made by myriad groups of individuals and communities who have risen to the challenges of the coronavirus year, simply can’t be overstated.

Showing a degree of courage, wisdom, and compassion for the people they love in the places they live, community groups have sprung into action and continued to exert themselves bravely and vigorously to serve the needs of others. The range of bottom-up initiatives has been truly inspiring in breadth of scope, innovation, and dedication. In this, we see the strong beating heart of genuine local self-government.

This should come as little or no surprise to ConHome readers. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of country and mankind.”

Not wishing to dwell too much on the courtier battles being played out in SW1, but we have surely now reached peak centralism. And the example of our communities in action holds up a mirror to the kind of society we want to be. Independent, family-focused, and resilient, while acting with an awareness of responsibilities and duties to serving neighbours in our midst. Confident of place and proud of identity, yet outward-looking and associative.

If Johnson’s government is looking to reset and pivot to the kinder and greener, exalting the role of community and family as much as ‘grands projets’ and levelling up growth schemes, then we need to think about the social infrastructure that needs to be laid in parallel tracks alongside the billion pound big ticket items.

At Localis, we agree with the findings of Danny Kruger’s ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report. Maximising the role played by community groups in the COVID-19 recovery and the government’s levelling up agenda thereafter suggests a space in which hyperlocal organisations should be given freedom to operate. Communities need both powers and resources to step up with a stand alone spirit if they are to create public value. We need to allow communities to self-organise, take back control locally of assets, and deliver unique local services where they have desire and capability.

So, in our report which is published today “Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy – Creating Powerful Communities”, we think back to the pandemic when communities mobilised around local rugby clubs and arts projects as much as in any predefined emergency response committees. And looking forward, we think ahead to what are now the best opportunities for giving our communities the chance to cohere, flourish, and renew our society and economy from the ground up. Here’s how we see it at Localis.

Firstly, the forthcoming Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper offers an immediate point of departure for reform. It should codify the role of councils in a facilitative local state by beginning the process of creating clear, statutory pathways to community autonomy. For example, the white paper should identify areas of service delivery that could be co-designed, run in partnership, or devolved entirely to the neighbourhood-level, particularly if the size of local authorities is to increase with reforms.

In doubling down on devolution, a statutory role should be created in local authorities for managing the process of subsidiarity and community relations, serving as a single point of contact and information for community groups looking to establish forms of local control.

How to glue this together? Firstly the ‘pop-up parish’ or Community Improvement District model should be extended as a statutory community right alongside the previous rights established in the Localism Act 2011. And pathways should be developed for communities to take control of non-core service spending at neighbourhood level through initiatives like the People’s Budget in Frome Town Council.

Secondly, to enshrine the principle of double devolution and expand upon the Localism Act’s establishment of Community Rights, the white paper should extend these rights to give the community greater power over local assets and social infrastructure.

In practical terms, all assets that qualify as having community value under the current system should be designated as social infrastructure. And if a community group decides to take on a community asset, they should be supported, both procedurally and financially, in their endeavours to do so.

The introduction of localised lockdowns has further emphasised the importance of front-line action from community groups. So thirdly, the government should urgently renew and extend financial support for voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations to respond to the pandemic, particularly as the reintroduction of lockdown measures escalates.

To ensure a fast and targeted response, a fund could be distributed to community organisations by local councils in lockdown areas in a manner similar to the distribution of the pandemic-related Small Business Grant Fund. As with the Small Business Grant Fund, the focus should be on rescue at any cost for the sake of national resilience, and the overall fund should be matched to need rather than to a specific cash limit.

Fourthly and finally, in order to strengthen social infrastructure, and properly resource endeavours to empower communities in a manner that is participatory and gets results, central government should commit to establishing a Community Wealth Fund – along the lines called for in Danny Kruger’s idea of a ‘Levelling Up Communties Fund’.

The fund would specifically target the social and civic infrastructure of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country. It would be an independent endowment that would be distributed over the course of ten to 15 years, to include investment at the hyperlocal level, decision-making would be community-led, and, as part of the package, support would be provided to build and sustain the social capital of communities and their capacity to be involved.

In this way, we lay the foundations for strong and empowered communities and so build back and recover the right way up.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Jonathan Hughes: In memory of Jonathan Sacks – whose words and writing contributed so much to British politics and society

9 Nov

Rabbi Jonathan Hughes is the orthodox rabbi to about 700 families in Radlett, Hertfordshire, and lectures widely as a motivational speaker to various audiences in and around the City of London and at secondary schools.

I was acutely shocked and saddened when I heard the news that former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, died in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was aged 72, and only about a month had passed subsequent to a cancer diagnosis.

As a young rabbi serving in his rabbinate, Rabbi Sacks was a personal mentor and role model to me. I can still hear his warm address to me from the synagogue pulpit in Hendon as I was about to embark on a new rabbinic role elsewhere. He was all about empowering those around him, challenging them to fulfil their calling and potential.

Even more memorable was the time when, profoundly disappointed by the actions of someone close to me, I burst into Rabbi Sacks’ home in St Johns Wood where he was addressing a group of youth leaders.

I gave him the details and, instead of indulging my abject despair, he warned me: “never give up on people.” His words have been a game-changer in the way I approach my rabbinic work, and I was particularly proud to have contributed to a book of essays on Jewish law and philosophy presented to Lord Sacks marking his retirement as Chief Rabbi.

Sacks, an orthodox Jew, was born in London in 1948 and, in 1991, became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – the spiritual leader of the largest grouping of orthodox Jewish communities in the UK. It was a position he held with distinction for 22 years.

A prolific writer of over 30 books and regular contributor to radio, television and social media, Sacks was knighted in 2005, and made a crossbench life peer in 2009. In 2016, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He had been described by the Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation”.

Sacks has been universally lauded as an extraordinarily gifted orator, writer and social commentator. Although his inspiration was keenly felt within the worldwide Jewish community, his impact was never limited to his co-religionists. Lord Sacks’ intellect, eloquence and charisma made an indelible impression in the hearts and minds of people from every type of background and belief system.

His was a voice of reason in a tempestuous world of chaos and division, a voice that transcended faction and tribal loyalties. His unwavering moral philosophy was one that revered community, heritage and moderation. He was outspoken in his condemnation of those who committed acts of violence in the name of religion.

His cerebral prowess belied his humble piety. One example ought to be shared to exemplify the simplicity of his faith, clothed as it was in the elaborate raiment of philosophy and scholarship. During his lifetime, Lord Sacks seldom mentioned that he had battled cancer twice before – once in his 30s, and later in his 50s.

When asked why he eschewed publicly reflecting on these ordeals, he responded that he had witnessed his father undergoing many operations and heath problems in old age, and that these had sapped his strength until he was forced to walk on crutches.

Sacks added that his father had not been the beneficiary of much in the way of Jewish education, but did possess enormous faith. He said he used to watch his father in hospital reciting psalms and could see him getting stronger as a result. It seemed that his mental attitude had been: “I’m leaving this to God. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”

Sacks said that he had adopted exactly this attitude. During both bouts of cancer he said, “I felt, if this is the time God needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the healing and I put my trust in Him. I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”

Lord Sacks was a fearless critic of antisemitism and piercingly diagnosed all of its menacing metastases, including obsessive antipathy towards Israel and Zionism. He had a warm relationship with Gordon Brown during the latter’s premiership. However, as Labour moved further towards the radical Left, Lord Sacks felt the duty to speak out. Indeed, recently he had been critical of Jeremy Corbyn, amidst the row over antisemitism in the party.

Sacks’ vision for a more harmonious British society included dignity in difference, and recognising the need for meaning at the heart of the human condition. He was often prescient in identifying the ethical gaps in a secular society that often focused on ephemeral pleasure over spirituality and responsibility. His was a message of selflessness over individualism, and he took pride in his religious Jewish identity without ever sounding dogmatic or arrogant.

Above all, Sacks’ legacy will live on in his many students, congregations and followers, who include leading figures in divergent fields. He has left an historic impression upon religion in the UK and many thousands will feel bereft at the loss of his towering presence and courage. He was taken from us far too early, and is survived by Elaine Taylor, his wife of 50 years, along with their three children and many grandchildren.

Salim Chowdhury: Integration not division offers the best future for British Bangladeshis

29 Jul

Salim Chowdhury is the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association. He is a former Police officer and a former Conservative Councillor.

Public Health England’s  COVID-19 report showed that Bangladeshi’s had the highest risk of death, a risk twice as high as those from White backgrounds. The challenged plight of the community was echoed in the Race Disparity Audit too, which has British Bangladeshis at the low end of almost all measures of performance in society – from the lowest average wage to the lowest school grades.

Bengalis came to the UK as early as the 17th Century as lascar seamen. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bulk of the community arrived. I was one of these people, coming from Syhlet like most of the diaspora. This economic migration saw all Bengalis get to work, or at least try to. Many initially found progress in the restaurant industry, creating a British staple in communities in the curry house.

Integration was everything. It was what led me to join the police and serve as a councillor, despite almost nobody from my background following these paths at the time. It is one of the reasons why any Minister engaging with the diaspora goes viral in Bangladesh – because the nation is impressed that its sons and daughters have made the journey to the UK, and in effect, made it. So for all the difficult readings of the RDA, there is actually a huge amount of pride in the community – and we need to tap into that in this recovery.

As the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association representing thousands of members across the country, I requested that all members running restaurants prioritised free meals for the elderly, vulnerable, NHS staff and care workers. This started on March 18th with the Food for the Most Vulnerable campaign. This has involved all restaurants providing over 9,000 free meals to these groups including special delivery options. Meals were provided to NHS staff across four different hospitals. This included Northwick Park Hospital which was one of the first to be hit hard and is home to a disproportionately high number of ethnic minority patients and staff in servicing Brent and Harrow.

We have seen Britons from all backgrounds come together. We have learned from each other. Tom Moore was the reason for Bangladeshi, Dabirul Choudhury, to also walk for charity – receiving huge coverage across major broadcasters in the UK and Bangladesh. Charity has reflected the best of us. The British Asian Trust’s ‘Big Curry Night In’ was an idea which worked and helped me to sign up 101 restaurants to raise money for those most in need of food and essentials throughout the crisis – and now there are British Bangladeshis participating in and with charities that they might not have done otherwise.

For all the pain caused by the crisis, British Bangladeshis are emerging with pride intact and with immense hope for the future of this country, our home. We are British first. It is up to all of us to deliver a social and economic recovery so that no ethnicity must look at statistics and see large gaps between them and another group, in turn confirming their notion of difference. All lives lost are tragic and won’t be forgotten, but we must look at all the positives, or else we’ll never have a chance to come out of the dangers to public health and the economy.

Our communities are one more than ever. It is an economic recovery, from levelling up to industries like my own in curry houses, that will deliver for our families and in turn provide them with conditions and choice which will not make them so vulnerable to other winds and storms in their lives. We must remember who and what we have got as well as who and what we have lost. My ancestors once navigated rough seas in a more challenging age. If they could, we can.

Salim Chowdhury: Integration not division offers the best future for British Bangladeshis

29 Jul

Salim Chowdhury is the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association. He is a former Police officer and a former Conservative Councillor.

Public Health England’s  COVID-19 report showed that Bangladeshi’s had the highest risk of death, a risk twice as high as those from White backgrounds. The challenged plight of the community was echoed in the Race Disparity Audit too, which has British Bangladeshis at the low end of almost all measures of performance in society – from the lowest average wage to the lowest school grades.

Bengalis came to the UK as early as the 17th Century as lascar seamen. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bulk of the community arrived. I was one of these people, coming from Syhlet like most of the diaspora. This economic migration saw all Bengalis get to work, or at least try to. Many initially found progress in the restaurant industry, creating a British staple in communities in the curry house.

Integration was everything. It was what led me to join the police and serve as a councillor, despite almost nobody from my background following these paths at the time. It is one of the reasons why any Minister engaging with the diaspora goes viral in Bangladesh – because the nation is impressed that its sons and daughters have made the journey to the UK, and in effect, made it. So for all the difficult readings of the RDA, there is actually a huge amount of pride in the community – and we need to tap into that in this recovery.

As the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association representing thousands of members across the country, I requested that all members running restaurants prioritised free meals for the elderly, vulnerable, NHS staff and care workers. This started on March 18th with the Food for the Most Vulnerable campaign. This has involved all restaurants providing over 9,000 free meals to these groups including special delivery options. Meals were provided to NHS staff across four different hospitals. This included Northwick Park Hospital which was one of the first to be hit hard and is home to a disproportionately high number of ethnic minority patients and staff in servicing Brent and Harrow.

We have seen Britons from all backgrounds come together. We have learned from each other. Tom Moore was the reason for Bangladeshi, Dabirul Choudhury, to also walk for charity – receiving huge coverage across major broadcasters in the UK and Bangladesh. Charity has reflected the best of us. The British Asian Trust’s ‘Big Curry Night In’ was an idea which worked and helped me to sign up 101 restaurants to raise money for those most in need of food and essentials throughout the crisis – and now there are British Bangladeshis participating in and with charities that they might not have done otherwise.

For all the pain caused by the crisis, British Bangladeshis are emerging with pride intact and with immense hope for the future of this country, our home. We are British first. It is up to all of us to deliver a social and economic recovery so that no ethnicity must look at statistics and see large gaps between them and another group, in turn confirming their notion of difference. All lives lost are tragic and won’t be forgotten, but we must look at all the positives, or else we’ll never have a chance to come out of the dangers to public health and the economy.

Our communities are one more than ever. It is an economic recovery, from levelling up to industries like my own in curry houses, that will deliver for our families and in turn provide them with conditions and choice which will not make them so vulnerable to other winds and storms in their lives. We must remember who and what we have got as well as who and what we have lost. My ancestors once navigated rough seas in a more challenging age. If they could, we can.

Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.

Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.

Matt Vickers: The lockdown has increased loneliness. Some will need help to reconnect.

9 Jul

Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South. He is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness.

Are you itching for things to get back to normal?

Are you looking forward to that holiday, trip to the pub, meal with friends?

Like me, do you feel like you’ve been cooped up at home forever, and are just bursting to live a full life again?

What is it you’re missing most?

A long walk on a sandy beach? That first cold frothy pint? Your favourite restaurant’s fish and chips?

Probably. But it’s bigger than that, isn’t it?

It’s the people we miss most.

As lockdown eases and we venture out more, it’s the people we’re looking forward to seeing – our family, friends, and workmates; people we connect with at our football matches, bingo halls, and places of worship.

For many, that will be easy but, for some, they will face challenges that make it harder to get back to normal because lockdown has compounded their isolation and loneliness.

A new British Red Cross report – Life after lockdown – reveals how big those challenges are and, this week, I chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness where we discussed its findings. What the report shows is that lockdown is affecting some people more than others.

People from Black, Asian and minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, younger people, those on lower incomes or unemployed, people who live alone, those with underlying health conditions, and parents with children at home are the loneliest of all.

As many as 41 per cent of UK adults surveyed feel lonelier since lockdown began, with 33 per cent saying they haven’t had a meaningful conversation in the last week. We all have work to do to help people connect and feel part of their communities again.

At this week’s APPG, we heard from 22-year-old Harry Foreman from the Co-op Foundation’s Lonely Not Alone campaign and he told us of his experiences graduating from university and suddenly having to leave behind some of his closest friends during the Covid-19 crisis. He said:

“There’s no handbook for graduating during a pandemic.”

But that’s true for all of us, isn’t it? We’ll all have to adapt in some way.

I’m lucky to be part of a vibrant community in Stockton and have been inspired by the sight of volunteers – both organised and spontaneous – who have been helping the most vulnerable with things shopping and other essentials.

I’ve been trying to play my part too, teaming up with Age UK to help constituents who are feeling lonely.

That spirit must blossom beyond this crisis because people were feeling very lonely before lockdown and many are feeling lonelier because of it – they’re going to need our help as we recover. Members of Parliament have a big role to play.

We must argue for sustained funding for services that help people overcome loneliness while looking to find ways of addressing the reasons why people become so lonely in the first place, like financial hardship and mental health.

We can champion approaches to health like social prescribing that put the focus on activity and interaction, helping people connect and improve their wellbeing through groups, classes, and events.

Rather than looking just at medical options, we need to look at social solutions – doing something you enjoy, meeting other people, forging quality relationships, feeling less lonely, feeling healthier.

It’s clear that, whenever we look at people’s health, there are inequalities at play in our society that impact on our ability to thrive, strive and prosper – MPs have to be at the forefront when it comes to tackling those too.

We can perhaps see loneliness as a signifier that other things may be going wrong in a person’s life and get to work addressing those issues and health concerns.

The Red Cross, Age UK, Mind, Sense, and many others have been supporting people throughout this emergency and will continue to do so when the crisis is over.

The examples of this sort of good work in my own constituency are just too numerous to mention and I know those people who have leapt to action to support others will want to continue to play their part in helping the most vulnerable.

Now is not the time to simply salute that good work alone. Now is the time to build on it.