Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A weekend break – at home

I didn’t really understand why Belfast is a popular spot for weekends away. I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but when at home it’s inevitable that weekends get taken up with the more prosaic aspects of living – supermarket, washing, gardening, catching up with friends and so on. Likewise, when working in the city, preoccupations about the to-do list tend to override appreciation of surroundings.

So having a friend from England to stay was a chance to take a weekend break, at home – a mini staycation.

We started on Friday evening with a concert at the Church of Christ the Redeemer at Clonard Monastery, as I now know it is called. There was some confusion between me and the English friend as he kept asking where we were going and I kept saying Clonard, and finally was forced to explain what this meant. Note to all on weekend breaks at home – you know stuff like this already, as well as knowing how to get to everything, more or less. The Ulster Orchestra and the BBC Singers performed a first class Haydn programme, and of course the church surroundings were spectacular.

On Saturday we went to the refurbished Ulster Museum. The new interior of the Museum is world class, with its new cafe and shop, and atrium which only requires a few black leather sofas to be perfect. The Sean Scully exhibition was wonderful (example pictured: Beckett, 2006) and also free, unlike special exhibitions in so many city art galleries. I even saw the man himself, but didn’t have the courage to tell him he’s right up there with Rothko in my opinion. The exhibition is at the Museum until next February, so I’ll be popping back in my lunch hour now and again.

After lunch we returned to have a look at the other galleries, and the place was packed. It was great to see it, but they will have to improve the ventilation if that level of traffic continues. I enjoyed the ceramics, including the Belleek collection which inspires wonder at the craftsmanship and a cringe at the designs. The history floor was a disappointment. The old ‘Made in Belfast’ display has gone, replaced by a much smaller section about the city’s industrial heritage, although there are some new videos on the subject. The Troubles section is superficial and, I suspect, designed not to offend; but the same could be said about the presentation of older events such as the Flight of the Earls and the Siege of Derry.

An essential part of your weekend break at home should be to try a new place to eat, so in the evening it was off to trendy Japanese restaurant Zen, in Adelaide Street, for a cocktail followed by a delicious meal with lots of veggie choices, great service, and a great atmosphere without music so loud we couldn’t hear each other. And still home in time for The Thick Of It, one advantage of living in a small city being that it doesn’t take long to get anywhere. The next day, we were out of the city for a drive to Bangor and a couple of hours walking along the coastal path, braving the weather and feeling great afterwards.

We finished off the long weekend on Monday with a short visit to Belfast city centre – first to the Victoria Square dome, where I hadn’t realised the views are so fantastic, and then to the, again, newly refurbished Belfast City Hall, and were able to take a guided tour which hadn’t been available on Saturday. The tour seemed pretty much like the one available before the refurbishment, but it was lovely to see the building spruced up and to become more aware of its Irish as well as its British heritage.

So I had a great time in my home city and now would recommend a short break here to anyone.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is it Right to Buy?

I must admit I never thought any political party would completely remove the Right to Buy, let alone that the announcement would receive as little publicity as did the SNP’s announcement at the weekend. Their case is set out in more detail here.

As many of us remember only too well, the Right to Buy for council tenants was introduced in 1980 in England, Wales and Scotland; and for Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants in 1983. It was a major part of the 1979 Conservative manifesto and was presented as ‘Helping the Family’.

The legacy has been mixed, to say the least. Those in work who were able to buy good quality council housing in desirable areas most certainly did benefit from this massive privatisation exercise, with around 2 million homes sold throughout the UK to date. The down side was that selling off the good stock left concentrations of disadvantaged households occupying poorer quality housing - described by housing researchers as ‘residualisation’. The legislation also fundamentally effected tenure patterns, increasing the proportion of owner occupied housing and fuelling the ideology of mass home ownership and the scrabble to get onto the property ladder by any means possible. And in most of the UK all the money gained from RTB didn’t go back into building more social housing to replace what had been lost.

Councils could sell homes with Ministerial consent before 1980, but there was massive opposition to the introduction of coerced sales – including, of course, from the Labour Party. Local government workers went on strike, and in Norwich City Council, commissioners were sent in by the government to implement the legislation. Tenants’ associations also opposed it. The Tories remained staunch supporters of the policy until they lost office in 1997, and in the 1980s tweaked the qualifying criteria a number of times in order to keep up the volume of sales. Labour abandoned their opposition to the policy in 1985, and since 1997 has been tweaking in the other direction, gradually tightening up the criteria as the consequences of mass sales and continuing housing need have become clear.

Many of these changes, of course, have been enacted through the devolved administrations, and this is where it’s important to see the SNP’s announcement as the logical end point of a trend that has been most evident in Scotland. Labour’s Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 introduced ‘pressured area’ designation, which allowed councils to apply for the suspension of RTB for new tenancies (the ‘modernised right to buy’) in response to high housing need in an area. The previous administration also commissioned an excellent report of the issues around the future of RTB. So the Year Zero approach of the SNP is slightly disingenuous. Labour’s response in Scotland has been that the pressured area status approach should continue, but it’s interesting to speculate on whether they would have reached the same point as the SNP eventually.

It’s also arguable that if you’re going to make such a change, now is the time to do it, with house sales falling due to unemployment and lack of access to mortgage finance, as well as a certain amount of caution about future prospects. It must be the first time since the policy was introduced that there are more people thinking they might need social housing one day, than are planning to buy the one they already occupy. The SNP are not taking much of a political risk here.

So is it the right thing to do? It certainly adds to the very short list of policy differences under devolution, and shows that devolved governments do have real power if they choose to use it. My only concern is about whether removing the RTB will yet again increase residualisation, as people who would have bought their council or housing association houses move away to buy and are replaced by a family with greater social needs. Although the benefits or otherwise of ‘mixed tenure’ developments are unclear and contested, we do know that concentrations of deprivation are very bad news indeed.

I opposed the RTB in the 1980s, and my heart is very much with the SNP’s proposal. But my head hasn’t quite caught up yet.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The future of the Left in Northern Ireland

To the Northern Ireland Regional Conference of the Workers’ Party this morning, for an interesting debate on ‘Opportunities for the Left in Northern Ireland’. The speakers were Gerry Grainger from the Workers’ Party; Michael Robinson from the Irish Labour Group in Northern Ireland; and Chris McGimpsey from the Ulster Unionist Party (as it still is – the link with the Tories is an electoral pact, not a merger).

There was general acknowledgement from the speakers that the Left remains fragmented, although McGimpsey, in the most interesting contribution, said wryly that left-wing unionists are in the biggest mess. Gerry Grainger was good at setting the context , although he may have over-done the crisis of capitalism bit. Neoliberalism is by no means going to go away, rather, the experience of the past two years shows we’ll see a new and more vicious form as the state focuses on protecting structures of capital accumulation at the expense of jobs and public services. Grainger felt that the current situation provides opportunities for the Left, and Robinson agreed, giving the example of how the NI Executive’s Investment Strategy needs to be taken out from behind the closed doors of the Strategic Investment Board and placed back into the democratic arena of the Assembly, for revision in response to the current economic climate. Trouble is, Michael, you need to be an MLA to contribute to that debate, and your party has banned its members from standing in elections in NI.

Grainger asked some key questions: how should we define ‘the Left’? What should be the role of the trades unions? How should the Left approach the issue of the sectarian divide? And, perhaps most crucially, how can the different between the social democratic and the revolutionary Left be acknowledged, to allow both groups to work together to protect jobs and services without the almost inevitable falling out? McGimpsey thought the UUP’s new link with the Tories would cost the UUP working class votes in areas like the Shankill, and might open up opportunities for other parties. He advocated a broad Left alliance based on specific issues, an idea which was supported by many speakers from the floor. Other issues raised included the possibility of a ‘think tank’ group to research and publicise a Left, non-sectarian viewpoint (widely welcomed); tackling political apathy; different views on whether we need another Civic Forum; the need to recruit more young people; and whether the trades unions might be best placed to lead a ‘Left’ campaign.

The question of electoral activity was fudged. Someone from the British Labour Party suggested negotiating an agreed list of candidates but this was not taken up by other speakers and Robinson, unsurprisingly, said he ‘doesn’t have a fetish’ about electoralism. But whether to put time and energy into standing for election could be a fault line in a Left alliance and is fundamental to an agreement on tactics – do you put pressure on others from outside decision-making structures, or do you try to get in there, form wider partnerships if necessary, and make changes rather than rely on others to see the light.

The Workers’ Party are to be commended for organising such open access events, and getting around 100 people to turn out on a Saturday morning. I hope they will be able to pursue the idea of a broad Left alliance.