Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Recreating community amid bankers greed

The economic crash engendered by reckless bankers has hit ordinary people particularly hard. Literally millions have been affected by the crash. 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.

Stephen Hester, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, now 84 per cent owned by the tax payer, 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 commonplace as the burden for the banking crisis is dumped on some of the most vulnerable and low paid people in our society.

The organisers of Poverty and Homelessness Action Week this year (30/1 to 7/2) offer a blueprint for change that rejects the bonus style culture and presents a new vision based on rebuilding the community.

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 balance of diet for people caught up in this type of poverty is not good.

The manifesto titled Enough seeks to address many of these problems. Among the suggestions are that on housing local groups can 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,” said 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 down streets. Once identified these can be reported on The council can then be pressured 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.

As mentioned earlier, 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 association of credit unions can be accessed at

The idea of a Post Bank run through the post office network, guaranteed by government and operating along equitable lines is another initiative that can help families. The idea has been championed by the Communication Workers Union, Federation of Small Businesses and Countryside Alliance among many 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 like 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.

Growing food in allotments and gardens is another initiative that can help families 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.(see

These are just some of the ideas that can help revive that spirit of community. This country is crying out for forces and structures that can bring people together rather than split them apart in atomised virtual prison. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week is a good time to start.
* For more information see

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