Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: September, 2017

We should listen to the Archbishop and learn from Kynren’s archers

The Archbishop

I am surprised that no one takes any notice when Justin Welby says that our economic model is broken.  I was taught at school that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the second most important person in the land. Do we do longer grant people in authority due deference and respect?  Should the Church of England and the House of Windsor worry for their future?

Or are we so accustomed to senior clerics sounding off, in the manner of Robert Runcie and David Jenkins, that we turn a deaf ear. Welby’s article in the Financial Times was dumped  in the looney lefty prelate bin by the popular press . What a pity, as he knows about finance and economics and had something important to say.

But then experts are the last people we listen to. When the Head of NATO says the world is a more dangerous place today than it has been for a generation, nobody bats an eyelid.  When the United Nation’s rapporteur on human rights say the government is “flouting” its duties on air pollution, no one expects any action. When endless experts, most recently the Chairman of John Lewis, tell us that Brexit will be a disaster, it only strengthens the resolve of those proclaiming the opposite course.

We are so overwhelmed by finding a way out of Europe that we have locked down our systems that relate to the state of the world, the health of the nation or the injustices in our society.  We are not accepting new information, discordant views or uncomfortable facts. We are hunkered down and scared.

“Britain stands at a moment of significant economic uncertainty” Justin Welby writes in prophetic mode  “ a watershed moment, where we need to make fundamental choices about the sort of economy we  need for the way we want to live”

He believes “we are failing those who will grow up into a world where the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country is significant and destabilising”.  He points to the growing gap between  executive pay and average wages; the lack of pay  rises  for more than a decade and the fall in living standards  in his past postings in Liverpool and Durham.  He suspects that the resulting discontent fed into the referendum and general election results.

The Archbishop’s article announced the interim report of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, on which he sits alongside academics, business people and Sara Bryson, a community organiser from Newcastle.  “The British economy today is not generating rising prosperity for a majority of the population” the report concludes. It notes that young people are poorer than the previous generations at the same age and that UK remains among the most unequal countries in western Europe.

The Commission believes that the 2008 global financial crisis has precipitated a  breakdown like the Great Depression of the 1930s and the oil crisis of the 1970s. It requires the kind of radical change that we last saw under the Attlee government and the Thatcher government  to “define a new settlement for the 21st century”.

IPPR calls for reforms of our institutions that will include devolution. It wants to see the economy become more competitive and innovative and be rewired for social  justice. In the next stage of its work, the Commission  will consider how to promote better paid and more secure jobs, reform the tax system and  adopt new approaches to housing.  We must wait until the final report appears next year to know how this wish list will come about. But this is a promising start.

It is just possible that someone was listening to Justin Welby and his fellow commissioners as the cap on public sector pay has been lifted.  It has been handled in a ham fisted way that has not satisfied the police and prison officers, who have been offered small increases, or the nurses and teachers who have not.  A winter of discontent could be ahead.

It is just this kind of muddle that IPPR is worried about. Comprehensive change is needed  to produce a new alignment for the next thirty years that reduces inequality. But who will listen until Brexit has run its weary way ?

The Archers

The second season of Kynren, the spectacular outdoor pageant of English history within sight of Justin Welby’s former home at Bishop Auckland, came to end this weekend.  I am intrigued by the economic model of Eleven Arches, the production company responsible for the event, which would fall apart without 1500 volunteers who give up their weekends all through the summer.

The self styled  ‘Archers’ are gaining skills, growing in confidence and taking ownership according to Eleven Arches They are motivated by wanting to revive the fortunes of their town and, on both my visits, have been foot perfect on stage and remorselessly cheerful as stewards off stage. They could not have been more helpful well into the night to a member of our party taken ill last week.

The investment comes from the new owner of Auckland Castle, the wealthy Jonathan Ruffer. Who else would have had the courage to back a business plan which depends on engaging, training and retaining such a massive volunteer force who could walk away at any point?  It is an astonishing testament to community spirit and it shows that radical new approaches are possible.

Published in Newcastle Journal 19th Sept 2017







The Judge gets down to work but will he tells us what we need to know

Moore bick

The children set off back to school , the politicians return to  Westminster and  Sir Martin Moore-Bick  steps into a palatial banqueting hall in Covent Garden to chair the first day of the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

I make no apology for returning to a subject that has haunted me all summer. The Notting Hill festival observes a minutes silence in memory of the victims . Alan Shearer manages a team in a charity football game for the survivors. Theresa May meets the tenants and makes an arbitrary announcement that the management company will be replaced. Sadiq Khan calls for a social housing czar who can put residents at the heart of decision making . The Metropolitan Police open a criminal enquiry. The cladding on a further 82  tower blocks fails fire safety tests. The story refuses to go away and Sir Martin Moore-Bick has not even taken his seat.

More people died as a result of fridge setting light than in all the terrorist outrages that have rocked this summer.  Britain’s worst fire in a century is a tragedy of our own making. There is no external power or extremist ideology to blame. It is impossible to ignore and shames us all.

My barrister friend tells me that judges are best trained to establish the facts. If  so,  why does Sir Martin needs six months to produce an interim report when some  questions seem easy to answer. Did the cladding comply with the fire regulations? Were the fire regulations too lax? Were the safety inspections carried out properly? Did the management company cut corners to save money?  We have a right to know the answers quickly.

In an age when information flies round the world in seconds, a public inquiry is an antiquated and long winded way of establishing facts. A retired judge steeped in the establishment who made a controversial ruling against council house tenants three years ago may not give everyone confidence . There was a strong case for a representative panel of many voices but, for now, let Sir Martin get on with the job as quickly as he can.

Even Sir Martin accepts that a wider inquiry of a different nature is needed into the sad state of social housing in the country. This need not wait. In the days after the fire, Theresa May promised that “no stone will be left unturned” but has left her housing minister, Alok Sharma, to conduct an, as yet undefined, internal inquiry. This will not disturb a single pebble on the shore.

Something akin to the Hillsborough Independent Panel is needed to give a chance for experts, tenants and the aggrieved to be heard. Newcastle’s Sheila Spencer is just the sort of expert who is needed.  There is no reason why this cannot be held on line or broadcast live and debated the length of the country. Step forward Joseph  Rowntree Foundation  to fund it.  Anything else is obfuscation.

Grenfell Tower haunts me because it lifts the lid on the lives on people living  in  tower blocks and how we have failed them. Many will be unable to pay the rent because their benefits have been capped  and some will live in fear of being tracked down by Border Force. It reminds me of the shock that greeted William Booth’s  revelatory study of life in London slums in Victorian times. The well to do just did not know what life was like a stone’s throw away.

The botched handling of the days after the fire led to a collapse of trust between local people and those charged with looking after them; the Chief Executive who stayed in his office and the Prime Minister who did not speak to survivors. No wonder there is so much anger and bitterness.

One of those who died in  Grenfell Tower  was a 12 year old Muslim girl called Firdaws Hashim. She lived with her father on the 22nd floor. They were both identified using DNA. In his McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the journalist Jon Snow  spoke of Firdow’s potential after awarding her a prize in a debating competition a few weeks previously. He went on to berate the media for insulating themselves from the harsh reality of life for people like Firdaws Hashim and for overlooking information about the hazards posted by residents months before the fire.

Journalists, Snow says, are losing touch with the disadvantaged and the excluded. The editor of The Journal entertains the widest range of political views in these columns but none of us can claim to be the voice of Cruddas Park or Meadowell.

I have not been too interested in the widespread  floods in Texas because I expect the richest country in the world to put things right even though they failed to do so in New Orleans. I am dismayed at the comparative lack of coverage of the floods in India where far more people have been killed and displaced. We become immune to natural disaster and loss of life in places that do not look like home.

The week following the Twin Towers disaster, the Hexham Courant ran a headline that read ”Hexham man in twin towers the previous day”. I bet no one in Hexham has ever been in Grenfell Tower. We need to know what it is like but doubt whether Sir Martin will tell us.

Published in Newcastle Journal 5th September 2017