No-one should be made to feel like a second class citizen because of where they call home

The remains of Grenfell Tower: a scar on London. Image: Getty.

Seven months on from the Grenfell fire and we don’t yet truly know what will change. The lives of the survivors and our community, certainly: affected indelibly and forever. We will never forget those we lost. The public inquiry is in place and we await to see the lines of questioning adopted and the conclusions it reaches.

But how much the tragedy will change our attitudes and behaviours as a country is still very uncertain. We simply do not yet know whether what happened and what we have seen will change our attitude to social housing and to communities like ours.  

The terrible tragedy also brought out the best in so many. In the aftermath I was part of a community devastated by tragedy that also came together to help so many who were in need. From the volunteers who came to my church and many other centres to hand out food and water, to those with legal expertise who have given their time in the months that follow to offer representation and advice to hundreds of families affected, we have shared a determination that the survivors would not be on their own in their grief.

As our community seeks to rebuild, so too must the whole country look to understand what happened and to find strength from despair. The public inquiry will look in depth at the causes of the fire and the response of the emergency services. But what of the bigger questions, the questions for our society that were posed by what we saw in Grenfell?


Grenfell residents have talked about feeling not listened to and like second class citizens: their voices are too easily dismissed by those in positions of power. While worrying, this is not unique. The experience of those in North Kensington have been echoed by many right across the country who feel the same way.

And Grenfell faith and community leaders, including myself, have talked about those in social housing being stigmatised. But we are reflecting a national problem, not something unique to our particular corner of West London. 

As someone who believes passionately in the role social housing can play in our society, these problems trouble me deeply. We must not miss the opportunity to address these problems. The debate which we promised each other would happen in the weeks after the fire must take place.

So it is to address these deeper questions of power, of community and about the future of social housing that, with the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, we are establishing an independent commission. We don’t start it knowing all the answers and our commissioners are not experts but truth seekers. We hope to find answers through a process which involves as many people as possible, from every region. We believe we need a big conversation involving all those in social housing, all those who need it and all those who live in and around it to chart a better way forward.

No-one should ever be made to feel like a second class citizen because of where they live or where they call home. We need a fresh look at all these questions and we need a new future for social housing which reflects the views of all those who can benefit from it. I hope all those who are able to contribute to this important new commission will do so, so that together we can help shape a better future for us all.

Rev. Mike Long is the minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church and the chair of Shelter’s Big Conversation on social housing.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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