Would you believe this was supposed to be a short post….
A name that will stick in the mind
If you’re ever at a party with a man called Martin Collins, ask him to buy you a drink – he can afford it. It was a name that didn’t mean much to me until today but it is now one that I will have engraved on my brain for a long time to come. Martin owns a joinery business as far as I can tell, and business seems to be pretty good, by the amount of adverts he has on people’s front doors. Well, I say people’s front doors. It’s actually on the big board where the front doors should be, but they’ve been removed as the houses are unoccupied and boarded up. I saw an awful lot of his adverts today.
I’ve been helping out the Burnley Lib Dem campaign team today and have had my eyes opened in a fairly stark fashion to problems with local housing which I hadn’t even considered before.
I’ve been doing this campaigning lark a while now in leafy Bury and before that in even more leafy Canterbury. The biggest problems I had to face up to now when delivering campaign literature have been the odd dog or those annoying vertical letter boxes. (If you’ve got one, chances are your postman swears at you EVERY day – be warned). But today came with something unexpected. I had to play a new game called ‘hunt the residency’.
I’ve been to Burnley helping before so I thought I knew the patch quite well. The odd runs of classic North West terracing interspersed with some nice ‘little england’ cul-de-sacs. All friendly, all recycling, all worried about whether little Johnny has his first choice of school. And I thought very naively that was pretty much what we in the political world had been reduced to, well at a local level anyway. We’re all chasing the same votes blah blah. The battle for middle England blah snore. In hindsight, it’s just squabbling really. 95% of the what I have experienced so far when visiting Burnley has been the same as any other town I have been to in the North West. It has its day to day problems, but hey, where doesn’t?
Done in half an hour
So today, when I was given a round that was described as easy to deliver terraces – I jumped in the car thinking it would be fairly simple. Nice simple redbricks layouts, done in half an hour, back in the car to listen to the second half of the football. (BTW Hammers – what on earth are you playing at – You lose to BOLTON??? I despair -again!). Sorted.
What I actually saw really knocked me back, as I was actually going to (and I really don’t say this lightly) what I can only describe as society’s dumping ground. There would be no cul-de-sac today, little Johnny will get whatever school he can walk to and whether recycling bins were going to be emptied once or twice a week suddenly became utterly irrelevant. I got a glimpse of a quite harsh reality. As I sit here writing this in my modest but comfortable two bed terrace in Ramsbottom (snigger) I realise that contrary to everything I moan about, I am very much with the haves, not the have nots.
When I saw the environment that people had found themselves living in this afternoon, I honestly did not know what to say. Whether I’ve been sheltered or blinkered to the problems with housing I don’t know, but I’m a little more up to speed now.
For starters, at least half of the houses on the estate we were visiting were derelict, boards along whole streets as I have already said, whole sections falling apart, waiting for a bulldozer and a developer to ride to the rescue. Naturally I wasn’t delivering down there as no one appeared to be home. But it was not much better in the streets I had on my list to give letters to. Many streets looked like they were simply waiting for the end to come quick. At least 30% of the homes in this area had boards across the doors or tape across the letterbox. And miraculously in amongst the vacant buildings, people were clearly trying to get on with their lives. These front doors were pretty tidy, the owners or tenants clearly proud of what they had. Triumph of the human spirit is alive and well and living next to the A679.
Across the estate however, there were things that these remaining residents just couldn’t control. The large pile of tyres dumped in the street, the burnt out chairs or the endless litter. Some dropped, but most the result of dumping.
The thing that really got to me was they way that everyone was just getting on with things as if this was some sort of accepted normality. I was delivering to one row of terraces, just next to a main road, where the only two residents around where two small girls probably aged about 7 or 8. Their parents were some of those who were clearly doing the best they could in the circumstances, their property was quite tidily kept and they had installed a trampoline out front for the girls to play on. If you look at the house from one direction and with a squint in your eye then everything looked pretty ok. But turn 180 degrees and you see the full extent of the challenge that we’ve all got ahead of us. If I didn’t know that it was supposed to be a street, I’d struggle to describe it in a way that didn’t make it sound like a bombsite. These two kids were playing (very happily) in amongst some of the worst conditions I have seen in a long time.
Actually, I’ve really only seen stuff like this in arty ‘look at how photographic the working class are’ exhibitions before and being there in the thick of it was a massive wake up call. The two girls, smiling away, let me know that no one lived at number 2. Great, one tree saved – I’ll put my leaflet through the next one. “That’s my house – I’ll give it to my Mum” came the voice. “Thank you, that’s very helpful” was my obvious reply. All the way along the street – I then had a guided tour informing me which of the houses were empty, where Jenna her friend lived and which house had a cat. (There were three). Despite being on what you might well call the ‘margins’ of society there was certainly no lack of confidence in my pint sized guide. But then on reflection I suppose her situation has determined that she has had to learn to be confident even at such a young age.
As I have said, I went through a lot of shock of surprise and then anger. This is Britain? It’s 2010 for pity’s sake and we’ve got kids growing up in conditions like this? All sorts of daily mail words were running through my brain (disgraceful, shocking, scandalous, outrageous… you know the drill….).
Gordon (no not that one…)
So you would imagine that I came away from it all pretty depressed. surprisingly I didn’t. As I have said before, I was out with the Burnley campaign team for the upcoming election, and in particular the parliamentary candidate and leader of the council, Gordon Birtwistle. For those who have never had the chance to meet Gordon, he is a formidable character. Tall, imposing and one of life’s do-ers. While we were out shoving bits of paper through letter boxes, he gave me a potted guide to the area in between stopping to introduce himself to locals and listen to some of their problems. He talked me through the problems that having a BNP presence in the area causes and gave me the lowdown on how to maintain a positive campaign when all around you are slinging mud. It was a fairly action packed three hours.
When I asked him about the housing situation in the area, he gave me an overview of the plans. Which bits were being flattened. Which were getting new fascias to improve the look of the area and also what the council were trying to do about the dumping problem. (The phrase chasing your tail sprang to mind here but I kept my gob shut). The problem had it appears been much worse when he became leader of the council in 2006 (and a bit of googling when I got home confirmed this) and this particular area was part of a quite a wide ranging scheme to improve all the environment all across the area.
Indeed, you can see the fruits of everyone’s labour beginning to make themselves clear. At the far end of this particular estate, there is a clean, well maintained park with the end product housing finished. The words “diamond in the rough” really are the ones are applicable here. A big sign standing proudly next to the new park tells the residents about how in the next few years that their estate will be a great place to live, work and relax. I feel that there is someway to go – but the signs are promising. These new or newly refurbished homes are all tidy and occupied and the rubbish is non existent. People have been given something important and they are clearly holding on tight to it. But it will take a generation or more for some of the neglect that this area has suffered from successive governments to be undone and that’s without taking into consideration the long list of knock on social effects that poor housing stock creates in urban areas.
I could try and make this one a party political point, but actually it isn’t. Yes, the Lib Dems are currently taking a very positive agenda to the problems in Burnley and what I witnessed today just confirms all the good reports I keep hearing at conferences and on the grape vine about the administration there. Gordon is also an excellent candidate and I will be doing everything I can to help deliver him as Burnley’s next MP.
But the work that needs to be done on the estate will more than likely be a part of a multi agency approach with some players being political and some not so much. The money & the leadership needed that will solve these problems in the long term won’t just come entirely from the local authority, but from national, possibly even European grants too and it can’t come soon enough. So I shan’t be trying to claim the political high ground here as let’s face it solving the housing problem and the thousand splinter problems that accompany it is a tad more important than what colour ribbon someone was wearing when the building work started.
There is something more important here.
The point is this…
After all the expenses and the scandals and the protests etc etc the country seems to have lost faith completely in its politicians. People feel disenfranchised, betrayed and powerless. “What’s the point?” is something I hear on doorsteps all the time. Well today I saw the point very clearly. I don’t care what colour is on your rosette. It’s our politicians who can change these things – they are the ones who will make those important decisions on our behalf. If we don’t engage with the process, then we don’t have the influence to tackle these important issues that are (‘scuse the pun) sitting on our doorsteps. If we don’t have that process of re-engagement soon, then our politicians really will become distanced from us and ergo from the problems we are all trying to tackle.
The little girl with the trampoline and all the other kids like her deserve a better future than that.