Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Too much, too young

Amy Winehouse died on Saturday 23rd July and will be buried today. The cause of her death remains uncertain but to many it wasn’t a surprise. She joins the uncanny number of musicians who died at 27, including Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
 Artists such as Winehouse are under two severe pressures: first, that of being so well known that you have no personal privacy; and second, the unrelenting scrutiny of your work (or comment on the lack of it), whether recorded or live performances. A further, usually disregarded, element of their lives is that maintaining your initial success is hard work. It’s not surprising that some people can’t cope - and once you are well known, handing in your notice on a Friday afternoon and slinking off to the pub isn’t an option.
 But the more interesting question is: what about those who have survived? What is the secret of the old timers like, say, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop?

Recently I read Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids. It’s a fascinating tale of a young woman coming to New York City, living rough, hooking up with Robert Mappelthorpe, working in bookshops, living in the Chelsea Hotel and finally being able to make a living as a poet and rock musician.
 But there’s something of steel in it too. She always thought of herself as an artist. She worked hard. In some way, it seemed to me, she held herself back – not from the excesses of the day, but from letting those excesses get to her. She had a very strong relationship with her family, but then so did Winehouse. This isn’t about what other people can give you but about your own capacity to withstand stress. Smith’s book (and film, Dream of Life) made clear that artistic expression through poetry and music was the driving force in her life. That would give you a pretty strong survival instinct.

Unlike many, I don’t think Amy Winehouse was an outstandingly great singer or songwriter. I suspect that she may be remembered more for inspiring other young women with good voices to take up careers as solo performers. But the real tragedy is that, with discipline, she could have become great later in life.

Monday, July 11, 2011

It’s that time of year again

I moved to East Belfast just over two years ago, and was surprised at how few flags went up in my area in July. This year, to my even greater surprise, there are no flags or bunting at the Strandtown shops. We have an Australian visitor staying with us. A couple of weeks ago we drove home that way and I remarked to her that if the area stayed flag-free I would interpret it as a victory for gentrification. Either that or the frighteningly efficient Alliance election team got back out there overnight and took the whole lot down.

Nowadays, I wonder if overt displays of loyalism are becoming more exclusively the sign of disadvantaged areas. And of course this raises the question of how the state and ‘community representatives’ in these areas should respond. Currently, funding is available to turn the Eleventh Night into a community festival as long as you avoid overt paramilitary displays and take the tyres off the bonfire. But money is getting tighter and state rewards for (temporary) good behaviour may disappear in the next few years. I would have thought it wasn’t the time to mark out your territory as a no-go area for anyone who doesn’t share your identity and heritage. Why on earth would anyone invest in Ballyclare after this week’s riots, or in inner East Belfast with its new ‘gateway’ murals?

If the gangsters who still dominate some of the poorer areas in Northern Ireland really do have the interests of their community at heart, they will realise there is no point in continuing to orchestrate violence and sectarian ill-will around the Twelfth. But if their aim is to intimidate the majority of people in these neighbourhoods for their own ends, then this behaviour will continue and the majority in these neighbourhoods will suffer as a result.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A better private rented sector

Much consternation about last night’s shocking Dispatches programme Landlords from Hell, presented by Jon Snow and linked to Shelter England’s Evict Rogue Landlords campaign. The undercover reporters showed a landlord charging a fortune in rent for poor quality housing and ignoring the law when they want to evict tenants. This landlord (who was a registered charity) also bought property from elderly home owners and rented it back, promising a tenancy for life and then, in the example we saw, evicting them. To finish, another reporter rented a share of a shed in Southall for £40 a week.

I wasn’t a bit surprised by any of it. The private rented sector (PRS) has always had its unscrupulous side, sliding very easily into criminality as bad landlords exploit the ignorance and powerlessness of their tenants. Indeed, subsidised rented housing – first the late Victorian charitable trusts and then council housing – was a response to the nineteenth century PRS. Until the 1970s a council house was a prized asset, because the alternative was a poor quality and probably overcrowded private rental. Conditions in the PRS have continued to drive improvements in housing legislation, for example the 1977 Homeless Persons Act and its equivalents elsewhere in the UK. Representing Finsbury Park’s bedsit land on Hackney Council in the 1980s convinced me that the kind of landlords who rent to low income tenants usually seek to exploit them rather than to run a reputable business.

So what to do? Dispatches exposed the low end of the business – in both senses of the term – and that needs to be dealt with. But the real question is: how can the PRS work effectively? The UK housing system consists of three components: owner occupation, social housing, and the PRS. The first two are better for people who are settled, although the PRS is playing an increasing role here due to both the state of the housing market and the shortage of social housing. Private renting is best for the shorter term, for example working in a city you don’t plan to move to permanently. It allows the labour mobility that’s important to the economy and also the personal flexibility that is necessary at some stages in our lives.

Here’s what’s needed. First, the PRS need to be properly regulated. Social housing providers are subject to much closer inspection because their building costs are part-funded by the state. The cheap end of the PRS is funded almost entirely by Housing Benefit, which is also taxpayers’ money, but private landlords are not quizzed about their management performance because there’s an erroneous assumption that all tenants can pack up and leave if they don’t like it. There’s also a problem with under-funded Environmental Health departments not having the resources to prosecute landlords.

Secondly, more information and advocacy services are needed for both tenants and landlords. Housing advice is provided by local councils, Citizens’ Advice, Shelter and other organisations, but Dispatches showed that it’s not getting through to everyone who needs it. Obviously the focus last night was on tenants’ problems, but some landlords do suffer from badly behaved tenants and need help to take action within the law. In addition, vulnerable tenants need someone to help them through the system and that’s where advocacy is important – but it’s labour intensive and again needs to be funded in some way.

Finally, there’s a more fundamental point. Poor and vulnerable people should not be in the PRS. They often need social support, which they are more likely to get as part of a social housing tenancy. The social housing sector isn’t perfect – most importantly there’s not enough of it, but there are also still problems of disrepair and poor management. But social landlords are more closely regulated and tenant participation is encouraged. The other side of the picture is that running a responsible private landlord business is expensive. The only way to make money out of poor tenants is to put them in awful housing and never do any repairs. The PRS is best suited to better off, well informed and mobile tenants who want good quality accommodation and are prepared to pay for it, have the resources to put pressure on their landlords if something’s not right – and to walk away as a last resort.

Early 20th-century council housing got people out of the slums and changed their lives. The reason for subsidised housing hasn’t gone away, as we saw last night.