Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Burn the black suit

Autumn is here, and that means a wardrobe clearout, a huge bag of castoffs to the charity shop, and a panic about not having anything to wear. As inevitable as the leaves falling off the trees.

But this year has been different. One of the rejects was a suit. My only suit.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to dress very formally for my job. Neat and tidy, yes – contrary to the stereotype of the dishevelled and absent-minded academic. But when the suit started to look a bit dated, I realised I’d only been wearing it two or three times a year and could well do without it. A couple of jackets would cover the odd formal meeting, conference or graduation, and nowadays I might even be able to get away with a cardigan.

And when else, outside work, would I wear a suit? Funerals and job interviews. Even the funeral dress code is getting more casual, so that no longer applies. I don’t intend to move jobs again before I retire but if needs must then I wouldn’t want one which rejected me for not wearing a suit to the interview.

It’s quite a culture shock, though. I haven’t been without at least one suit since the mid 1990s, when I got my first full-time job in local government and thought I’d better smarten up. Until this year it would have been unthinkable to ditch them. I clung to my formal clothing even after I’d left local government and become a PhD student and then a postdoc, when there was very little need to look smart. On the basis that you never know.

Something has changed over the past couple of years. It may be the economic times we live in, or perhaps just fashion, but dress codes have become more relaxed, especially for women. It’s become acceptable at work to replace your dark, ill-fitting and drab suit with colourful jackets and cardigans, scarves and jewellery, and still to be taken seriously. That’s a welcome development for those of us who don’t see why we should have to dress like men in order to get equality and respect at work. But equal pay to go with my red cardigan would be nice.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A town like Maidenhead

I enjoyed the recent BBC series Town, presented by Nicholas Crane and including Ludlow, Perth, Scarborough and Totnes. You can catch the final two episodes on iPlayer if you’re quick. Crane made a persuasive case for the quality of life in towns and gave some great examples of their resilience in the face of economic and social change.

There was one quite understandable flaw, however. His four town were all, in some way, a success. They were places you’d think seriously about living in – even a city girl like I. But what about towns that are struggling? I can see why no local council or chamber of commerce would allow access on the basis of being Loser Town. However, a wander around my home town of Maidenhead last week provided the missing link.

Maidenhead is a Berkshire town with a population of 78,000, located between Slough and Reading. It has suffered from the shopping and other facilities available in those two towns, from out of town supermarkets, and from the niche shopping and amenities offered in surrounding affluent villages such as Cookham, Taplow and Bray.

What’s left is dire. Looking around, it was clear that most people were there due to lack of choice - because they either couldn’t afford a car (young people, including mothers) or didn’t want to drive long distances (old people). There were lots of empty shops, along with a poor range of goods and very little middle market choice. Atrocious service in Boots, where I was told to go to John Lewis for a brand they didn’t stock. Now, that’s fair enough if there had been a branch around the corner, but the nearest is in Reading.

There are two initiatives that could help to drag the town out of its stagnation. Kings Triangle is a proposed mixed use development which continues to shift the town’s centre of gravity towards the station, in my view correctly in order to encourage use of public transport. But although including office and residential space, as well as a public square, it follows the conventional path of trying to encourage more consumption. It may work, because it will provide a mix of large and small retail units which may diversify the retail offer and persuade more time-poor people to return to local shopping, but it very much depends on attracting the major chain stores to the town. The plans ignore the dreadful local bus services, which need to be vastly improved – and subsidised – in order to get people out of their cars.

Maidenhead also has a Transition Town group. The web site includes an interesting series of events, and hopefully the people involved can help to promote a more sustainable approach to development. However, the problem with these kind of groups is that they tend to remain small and without real influence.

But the real issue is the bigger picture: are we seeing the beginning of changes that could be very beneficial for towns like Maidenhead? Higher fuel costs and decreasing consumption due to the economic situation could lead to the end of shopping as a leisure activity. If people  returned to local retailers for essentials and followed the ‘buy less, buy well’ rule for the rest, then towns could benefit. And if more time is spent in a town, it becomes easier for it to develop a better community focus, reflecting the diversity of its citizens’ interests, and a stronger identity. All this helps with the area becoming a stronger economic hub as well.

Nicholas Crane gave us fascinating accounts of four towns that are further forward in this process, but others can follow.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Just askin'

Much consternation across the world about the English riots – mistakenly described in the media as UK riots, incidentally. But I can’t improve on Nick’s brilliant post about that subject, so I am turning my attention to the new financial crisis that’s bubbling away under the surface.

My understanding of the current situation is that US debt has been downgraded by one credit ratings agency; interest rates in the US will remain low for the next two years, presumably to try to encourage growth (which didn’t work in 2008); there are continuing problems in several eurozone countries; and the UK Chancellor is to address Parliament tomorrow, presumably to emphasise that further cuts remain necessary. Even Sammy Wilson has got in on the act. On top of this, consumer spending remains weak due to job losses and general loss of confidence in the future.

So, to summarise: nations have debt problems because they bailed out the banks which got into trouble due to poor lending practices compounded by lack of regulation. Nations cut public services due to debt problems. Public spending falls, firms go out of business, tax income falls. Credit agencies label nations as bad credit risks. Banks that hold loans to said nations get nervous and start to restrict lending again. Liquidity decreases. Shares fall. Interest rates fall. There is talk of further bank bailouts.

But with what? Are nations expected to get further into debt to keep capitalism in business? Or, if they can’t or won’t, what is the alternative? In 2007-08, in what we may soon be referring to as ‘the last credit crunch’, it was possible for nations to justify putting huge amount of money into bank bailouts of some kind – because debt was within reasonable limits. Also, people were still spending because, even though there were job losses, public sector cuts had not taken hold. Businesses could rely on the spending power of public sector workers and also – perhaps crucially – public sector contracts to keep them going.

This time around it’s different. The economic base of Western capitalism is contracting and at the same time becoming more, not less, debt-based. So what will happen next?