Sunday, 25 October 2009

In the name of liberal democracy..

My feet have gone beyond aching, but finally after months of build-up, which has led to a few things this blog included being neglected, it's over. I'm promising myself never, never, never-ever again just like I did last year, but this time I mean it. I haven't run a marathon or gone for an agonisingly long hill-laden distance bike ride, no; I've just been collecting peoples names for the register of electors.

It all starts in August. A couple of pleasant sunny mornings spent posting letters containing the forms through peoples doors. Just as the leaves are turning yellow come the reminders in September. Then October; Stage 3 - the door knocking stage. Stage 3 involves knocking on the door of every non-responding address twice. The statutory time frame for this is the 9th - 26th October. The sociology graduate in me finds this stage interesting. The Chicago School of Urban Ecology Theorists after all felt in order to get under the skin of a city to really know how it works you need to wear out as much shoe leather as possible.

My area for the past two years is what the Chicago School Theorists would term the zone of transition; an area near the very centre of the city with a transient population which serves as an arrival point for recent migrants. This would of course be a gross over-simplification of the dynamic of the area, where individual streets change in character from top to bottom, but provides a broad-brush stroked overview.

Many of the buildings are Victorian, built in the late 1800s and have, ironically through neglect, retained many original features. Many of the mosaiced paths leading to the front doors remain intact. Whilst not quite in the same league as Fishbourne they nevertheless are elegant, attractive features that put any homes built in the last 100 years to shame. Stained glass designs rest above doorways and many porches are brightened by ceramic glazed tiles in a multitude or shapes, colours and designs. No doubt conscientious owner occupiers would have long ago ripped these out to be replaced with whatever was de-jour. Another irony is it is the grandest of these homes, the victorian palaces at the end of tree lined streets abutting the main throughfare, which my Grandmother recalled as the posh part of town, that are now home to the most transient populations; their cavernous shells sectioned into single room dwellings.

Regeneration since the mid 1990s has transformed the area; once known as the red-light district. Investement in health centres and community facilities have been combined with City Patrol vehicles surveying the streets with mounted cameras and community based policing methods to reduce minor anti-social behaviour such as on-street drinking and drunkeness which had provided the area with its former reputation.

In the course of knocking on peoples doors the overwhelmingly majority were friendly even if many chose not to register to vote. Now, here is the difficulty with stage 3. My area has a very low response rate to Stages 1 and 2, in fact this year a response was not received from 593 properties which means potentially knocking on doors 1186 times. This is not just an issue for my feet, but is a huge problem for democracy. Anecdotally the people most reluctant to register are the most margianalised. Hardly any of the residents in the large houses sectioned into bed-sits register and many new eastern-europeans are also highly unlikely to register.

Working in local government I know that politics does matter, political decisions do impact our daily lives, particularly the lives of the most vulnerable who are more likely to be in contact with Health, Social Care, Housing and other services. Marginal groups and new immigrants are also vulnerable to being used as scapegoats for social problems by politicians eager to squeeze votes out of those who do register, but without registering to vote what hope do the marginalised have of having a voice to answer back?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Inequality: The Elephant in the Room

After a few weeks behind my usual desk and a couple of hectic, lunchbreak free duty days the memory of the relaxed week I spent with the new team is heading on a one-way ticket to my subconscious. There is however, one aspect of the week which troubles me and has been the cause for some reflection.

In my second day on-loan to the newly formed, freshly relocated team I stepped out of the office to take a lunchtime meander. The office, a grim, dull building, is located on the West side of the City at the end of a long shopping street; the sort of street that is near to a town centre, but a world apart. 99p shops, Greggs the Bakers, an empty Woolies leaving a gap like a freshly pulled tooth, pawn brokers, cash converters, assorted charity shops, a KFC and a shop selling mobility scooters. What struck me most of all however, was how there seemed to be a far higher number of people who appeared to be in poor health with oxygen bottles, missing limbs and mobility scooters.

I was troubled as to whether this was the anecdotal observation of a Flaneur born of some kind of class-snobbery so last week, over another lunchbreak I went in search of hard data. A quick Google search instantly came up with what I was looking for. On an NHS site I found the following passage:

"Predictably, poorer health indicators are common in the most deprived wards and are a dominant feature of west ............ Compared to the rest of the City, people living in poorer areas have a 27% higher overall death rate and a 47% higher death rate for heart disease and stroke. Specific health problems include high teenage pregnancy rates, high accident rates and poor dental health in children."

Not coincidentally this side of town is home to the highest proportion of Social Care service users. Poverty and inequality have long been known to been implicated in conditions such as COPD, mental health issues, obesity and diabetes.

From an insiders view of service cutbacks, understaffing and a new charging policy which has sparked protests outside City Hall it is clear there is a funding crisis in the Social Care field. This is publicly acknowledged by the Government. The latest Government initiative 'The Big Care Debate' frames the issue in terms of the crisis being a by-product of us living longer. The elephant in the room however, seems to be the effect on health and the need for long-term services generated by poverty and inequality. The complex needs arising from and exasperated by poor housing, mental health issues, lack of resources and poor education. Inequalities many of which have grown unchecked for a generation and need to be tackled.