A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Recreating a sense of community

The economic crash has hit ordinary people particularly hard; literally millions have been affected. This unjust pill has been all the more bitter to swallow as those struggling to scrape by through no fault of their own observe bankers taking bonuses and continuing with business as usual. Royal Bank of Scotland boss Stephen Hester admitted that even his own parents thought he was paid too much at over £9 million a year. This type of remuneration has been all too common while the burden for the banking crisis is dumped on some of the most vulnerable and low-paid people in our society. Over two million households are spending more than half their incomes on housing costs. Nearly a quarter of the country's households (six million) suffer from stress or depression worrying about housing costs. In the last year a quarter of all households have had to reduce their food shopping in order to meet housing costs and over a third have cut back on family treats. The National Consumer Council claims that five million of the poorest people have become the country's invisible poor. These people are forced to scavenge for cast-offs at market stalls and pick up damaged goods at supermarkets. The organisers of Poverty and Homelessness Action Week, which starts today, offer a blueprint for change that rejects the bonus culture and presents a new vision based on rebuilding the community. Their manifesto titled Enough! seeks to address many of these problems. Among the suggestions are that local housing groups could organise an empty home search in their area. There are 80,000 empty homes in England spread across every local authority. "If even a quarter were brought back into use, it would make a difference to homeless and badly housed people," says Alison Gelder, chief executive of Housing Justice, a lead organisation in the campaign.

Local authorities have a list of empty properties that can be accessed by a freedom of information request. Estate agents also have local knowledge of empty homes and there are websites for property auction houses. Alternatively people can search out empty homes on local streets. Once identified these can be reported on www.reportemptyhomes.com. The council can then be pressed to get them back into use. A community exchange is another idea, whereby an event is organised and people bring along different things to exchange in almost barter-style. The more ambitious could organise a community assets audit, which involves people coming together and sharing the skills and assets that people have that can be used to create a sustainable livelihood. The five main areas are financial, human, social, public and physical. The banking system has served the country poorly. Many of those now struggling have been forced into debt. Credit unions are an increasingly popular way of confronting this problem. These organisations are run in the community, offering lending and borrowing facilities available for those on the lowest incomes - trade unions, churches and community groups could all get involved in this type of banking.

The idea of a post bank run through the post office network, guaranteed by government and operating along equitable lines, is another initiative that could help families. The idea has been championed by the Communication Workers Union, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Countryside Alliance among others. Millions of people do not have access to banking facilities. This limits their social movement in this society. A post bank guaranteed by government could help remedy this situation, as well as offering reliable services to everyone. Some areas such as Calderdale, Totnes, Lewes and most recently Brixton have organised their own currencies. The notes can be exchanged locally for goods. These currencies help reconnect and rebuild local businesses and trade by bringing people together. In Lewes, local traders run a prize draw with the serial numbers on the currency being entered. There are also discounts on items bought with the local currency. Growing food in allotments and gardens is another initiative that can help families to survive. There can be exchange of crops organised on a local basis. Land share is another positive community-based initiative whereby those with plots of land they don't use can be brought together with others who want to grow vegetables. These are just some of the ideas that could help to revive a spirit of community. This country is crying out for forces and structures that can bring people together rather than split them apart.

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