Barclays illegally rig the banking system to rip off borrowers, NewsCorp hack phones and pay cops for evidence, GlaxoSmithKline mis-sell anti-depressants to children, BP pollute the Gulf of Mexico, premiership footballers rant racist remarks. Retribution comes in a token resignation or a paltry fine. A generation of young people have been proletarianised and pushed into unrepayable debt, with all the agreements of the 20th century social contract (welfare, free education, free healthcare, access to work, retirement) to be taken away from them as the cost of financial institutions and their stakeholders in politics and media disliking paying taxes. The new political violence is suicidal: self-immolation, destruction of the body, the last and only thing a worker possesses when all other aspects of the social contract or future have been emptied out. Perhaps a Theseus is needed to end this vicious tribute to the Minotaur. But this is the everyday violence of living and working in neoliberal capitalism. All this and more are as recurrent as full-moons and the political response is similar, caught in reactionary twitter-thumping and soon forgetting that such features are centuries-old. Times like these call for different ideas.
Change, meaningful change, not being short-changed, will begin in the cities. London is a dormitory of depressed workers and a cascading series of betting shops, hypermarkets and Richard Seifert school office-shite. Here are ten idle suggestions to improve cities that are cheap, immediately beneficial and don’t require any radical expense or restructure of local or national government. None are radical in any way and should easily fit within the belief-systems of a largely conservative UK electorate whilst ensuring social benefit, albeit in a Spinozian, paternalistic manner.
1. Shut down all unhealthy fast food take-aways.
They create an excessive amount of litter, and the poor quality of food and disposable packaging make locals behave and become what they eat. Healthy foods (as in nutritious, low-fat and with low-additives) of any cuisine can be cheap and should be the only choice.
2. Remove alcohol tax on pubs, increase for shops.
By making alcohol significantly more expensive from off-licences and supermarkets than in pubs, adults will be compelled to drink in local bars, thus increasing local bonds and social cohesion in these key adult community centres for adults.
3. Reorganise council tax to reward civic engagement.
Increase council tax by a consistent percentage across all bands (e.g. 20%) which is fully redeemed for anyone participating in community or civic activities: community assemblies and forums; voluntary community work with youth, disabled, elderly; local sports or interests; a programme of community murals on all vacant building-sides; and so on. Council tax to be means-tested on ability to pay/wealth.
4. Community work apprenticeships for unemployed locals.
Ex-offenders and long-term unemployed to be placed on community worker apprenticeships, offering food/shopping tokens in exchange for clearing and cleaning, gardening and so on. Regular attendance, with mentoring support, results in eventual employment for council. Councils to be compelled to take on 30% minimum of staff from residents of local area through this scheme. Additional benefits of reducing isolation and adding to CVs.
5. Local drop-ins improve access to key services.
Use local businesses like shops, pubs, libraries, barbershops and hairsalons etc to give out community and service info, as well as situating regular drop-in clinics for sexual health, general ‘health MOTs’, CAB drop-in, legal advice, and so on, most of which take place in the evenings when workers/students can get to them. Reduces overheads and places services in places of familiarity, thus increasing engagement with general public.
6. Improve civic information.
All boroughs to publish a print/online monthly newsletter listing all free events, volunteering information, dates of drop-in services like those above, as well as local stories.
7. Free public wi-fi.
Internet is the most important informational network of our era, and with the UN declaring internet freedom as a human right, equality of access should be guaranteed by local government via the relatively low-cost of public wi-fi. Working together in public places might promote local creative activities, learning, and aid local business.
8. Increase public benches, shelters, and toilets.
Working with elderly and disabled Londoners, the need for these is clear. Public places are currently uncomfortable, privatised sites characterised by play-school furniture and CCTV/crime warnings, which would be easily reversed with benches and shelters for people to sit and hang out around.
9. Cease sub-contracting.
End the subcontracting of new council services, particularly those under PFI schemes, and bring back under council management all services within five years. End the hire of private consultants, which alongside PFI amount to a modern definition of governmental corruption.
10. Professional civic class.
In the vein of jury service, civic service will be extended to the professional middle class, with lawyer service and consultancy service becoming compulsory and unpaid features to provide free and impartial legal advice and social consultancy.
Disagree? Let me know. This piece comes over 18 months after I last wrote on cities.