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Kevin Harris
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What’s needed to re-invigorate local democracy? Well we could start with an honest assessment of the state of local community information, and who contributes to it. Some years ago Hugh Flouch and I ran an unconference at Ofcom for people interested and involved in local online networks (sometimes unhelpfully called ‘hyperlocals’) in London. A number of recommendations emerged for modest pieces of work – e.g. around standards, training in journalism and editing etc – which wouldn’t have required much funding to ensure they happened. As far as I know no funding was secured and none of this work was ever carried forward. Despite the early enthusiasm and promise, and many remarkable examples of good practice, the local online networks movement can hardly be described as being in rude health; and I’m sure there is much reinvention of wheels. Meanwhile the state of local information provision around the country is dire. A new paper by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust notes that around the country, local council meetings now regularly go unattended and unreported. Moore argues that: Innovation in local news and information is urgently needed to address the decline in local newspapers and to help support and reinvent local news and community information for the 21st century Without such reinvention we risk weakening our civic communities and our local authorities becoming unaccountable There is a window of opportunity for the UK government to seed, through an independently run competition at no cost to the taxpayer, a flowering of innovation in news and information and civic technology at a local level The opportunity for innovation and growth will decline as non-UK technology platforms further colonise local media space. There's a little hyperbole here - local authorities won't suddenly become 'unaccountable' - but the argument is sound. I would have preferred less emphasis on competitive funding schemes, which have arbitrary effects, and more on (i) small-scale targetted grants that add value across the sector; and (ii) the social, economic and governmental benefits of involving more citizens in the production of their own news and the discussion of their own issues. I’ve recently been designing a questionnaire survey to be administered at a local level in east York, for a JRF-funded project. Among the questions we’ll be asking will be a few about local channels of information – how important are they? do local people contribute to them? and could local people be contributing to them more? Is a local resident-run website likely to encourage community involvement in local issues, or discourage it? Would it make for a more positive sense of local identity or a more negative one? By taking a non-tech, community development approach to such questions we may gain insights that will be valuable in re-invigorating the neighbourhood online networks movement: that certainly seems to be needed. Continue reading
Posted Oct 21, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Recently I visited an area where there had been tensions around a proposed new development. I heard someone say that when they had moved into the village ten years ago, they’d been told there would be ‘council housing’ built on the fields opposite. And it does seem that there was something like a decade of planning, rumour, uncertainty and objection. Perhaps mischievously, much of this was characterised as people 'complaining that they would have nowhere to walk their dogs'. It’s likely there were more serious concerns. Nonetheless the new (mixed tenure) estate is now about half-built, with plenty of pleasant landscaped green space and paths (if few amenities), and is partially occupied. On my visit one of the new residents quipped: ‘They’ve a lovely space to walk the dogs, and they don’t have to put their wellies on.’ NIMBYism is easily over-simplified and caricatured, but there are studies to be done of the degree of correspondence between fierce objections to anticipated plans and the subsequent reality and experience. Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Into the last mile of an early hour’s run last Saturday, I passed through a wicket onto fenced common land. The field is about a mile in perimeter and mainly used by dog-walkers plus a few other runners. I found the gate unfastened (there is a rather pointless leather strap that can be used to hold it in position) and I left it so, as it is more often than not. Fifty metres further on I heard a bellowing accusation, directed at me – ‘You might have shut the gate…’ I pointed out that I’d left it as I’d found it. There followed a torrent of abuse, extraordinarily loud for 06.35 in the morning. Amongst it all was the instruction, whatever the circumstances, to fasten the gate shut out of ‘respect for the public’. (That’s a subject I can claim to know a little about, but this feller wasn’t to know that. In that context, he provided a tidy example of anti-social behaviour in the public realm). He stomped off, telling me to fuck off. Bemused, I congratulated him on being sufficiently grown up to be able to swear at people. There are two other gates to the field, neither of which has a fastening. It’s possible he feared a marauding horde of fierce peasants from the estates of the nearby town, I really don’t know. But the self-evident folly of his attitude seemed to illustrate perfectly the arrogant, superior middle-class middle-England conviction that it is the right of the Haves to tell others how to behave, whatever the context. It was like a local echo of the Westminster approach to Scotland. I often puzzle over whether this is a universal phenomenon across time and geography. My experience from time spent in other countries suggests it is: but in England, with our centuries of pretend (and pretentious) imperial dominance, people do it better – with more emphasis, more conviction, more individual presumption of their own superiority. It seems such a shame. Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Like many English people I’ve experienced occasional nationalistic abuse from Scottish people in the past; but given the often nasty historical abuse perpetrated by the English establishment all over the place I’m more than ready to overlook that. With a few hours to go to the true historical moment of the referendum, my thoughts are with those Scots who are riven with indecision. I hope they manage to reach a decision that they remain comfortable with. I also hope they exercise their right to vote. Yesterday I was told of a predicted turnout of 81 per cent, though one would hope it will be higher: on such a momentous occasion, how could nearly one in five citizens not be bothered? Among the numerous unresolved issues around the campaign, I’m still pondering these: Concerning all these economists and financiers and their predictions of economic disaster… can someone remind me of their economic forecasting competence and explain the basis for their integrity, impartiality and appreciation of social justice? Is it not perfectly reasonable for at least half a nation to vote on the principle of social justice rather than on the values peddled by an arrogant self-serving elite from another country? (That's a no-brainer if ever I heard one). I hope it will be rather more than half a nation. Will a Yes vote lead to the reinvention of a genuine politics of the left? And how long might that take? I reckon 5-10 years with a Yes vote. With a No vote, forget it, you’ll need to find a small independent country to emigrate to. Good luck to them. Continue reading
Posted Sep 17, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Don’t follow leaders, said Dylan. Many people want to be in charge, and I’m aware that the English do not have a monopoly on this trait. But we do tend to do it in - how shall I say - a more polished and superior way than others. And in Scotland this week, as Suzanne Moore puts it in probably the best piece I’ve read on this tense topic, ‘Those in charge are all campaigning simply to be in charge.’ If you read nothing else about Scotland, read this one. Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
‘This app depends in large part on the wholly subjective judgments of its entirely anonymous and self-selecting user group, whose impressions about what makes a neighborhood unsavory are unreliable at best.’ Karston Capps, in the Atlantic, confronting the issue of 'social' technologies that can work against social cohesion, reviewing another ‘safety app built by white startuppers to help smartphone users avoid "sketchy" areas.’ More here on the BBC site. Continue reading
Posted Aug 9, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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Linked-In being the un-navigable system that it is, it is hard for me to provide the source of this, but I thought it well-worth sharing. via Ronan O'Beirne on Linked In, via Paraic Hegarty. Continue reading
Posted Jun 25, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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So the UK and Germany – according to some media coverage of a recent ONS report - are the 'least neighbourly' countries in the European Union. The report reproduces a hard-to-find figure from the Third European Quality of Life survey (3EQLS) which used a five point scale for the following statement: ‘I feel close to people in the area where I live.’ Some people might think that's as much about belonging or cohesion as it is about neighbourliness. For those who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, the average across the EU apparently was exactly two-thirds. For the UK it was a miserable 58.4 per cent – very narrowly superior to Germany’s 58.3 per cent. Here are two little curiosities. Cyprus appears at the top of the list of countries on this measure, with almost 81 per cent of respondents saying they feel close to people in the area where they live. However, Cyprus also has a very high rate (2.6%) of people who say they never have face-to-face contact with friends or neighbours outside the household (the UK figure is 1.4 per cent, similar to most countries). And Table 3 of the EQLS report on subjective well-being (2013) offers a finding which perhaps might have appealed to the more exploratory journalists in the recent coverage. It gives ‘the worst and best’ for all European countries in the study. The UK does quite well on the loneliness score, but has the following three ‘worsts’ – I think that means that, out of 27 European countries, the UK population is the most consistently knackered (whether rested or active) and with the lowest sense of neighbourhood belonging (which is what the latest ONS report confirms). ‘Consistently knackered’ can also serve to describe your blogger's state of health these past few months, hence the shortage of contributions in this space, but I hope the drought may now be over. Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
hi Matt - if you include an email address with your comment I can contact you (it will not be displayed on the blog) - kevin
All credit to the Italian judicial system for (a) finally getting former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to do something useful, and (b) for having a civilised legal condition that says no convicted criminal over the age of 70 should go to prison. This morally minuscule man is to carry out a paltry few hours a week working with volunteers (he is not a volunteer) at a hospice for Alzheimer patients. What will he be doing? I’m reminded of a traditional question in the community and voluntary sector: who cleans the toilets? In the community centre, in the day centre, the village hall – who gets to do this essential job? These are people we should have some respect for. It does suggest a role for Berlusconi if he ever wants to gain some genuine respect. Continue reading
Posted May 10, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Last winter I prepared a lengthy literature review on older people and social isolation, for an exciting research project being run by WoodGreen Community Services in Toronto. The paper is now available and I hope will be very useful for the range of material it draws together. It covers material on the built and green environment; quality of life, health and well-being; and social support and connection. The project sought an understanding of the state and breadth of knowledge about the social isolation of older people in urban areas, with particular attention paid to housing form, and formal and informal care. The coverage is of international material in English. It was an overview rather than a systematic literature review – the huge literatures on ageing, health, quality of life, loneliness and so on, combined with a limited budget, precluded close reading of methodologies used in the material described. The bibliography covers nearly 500 separate items. Consistencies in the research emerge of course, but there are also a few fascinating inconsistencies – for example around the connection between religion, older people’s social networks, and well-being. Two characteristics of the literature struck me in particular as I was trawling and reading. The first is the stark invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older people in any content that is not specifically about them. In the review I have distributed the material that is available, across several sections, so as not to compound that effect. The second is the number of calls that are made for increased participation of older people in decision making processes, alongside comparatively few accounts of such involvement. I’m indebted to Diane Dyson at WoodGreen and to Angus McCabe at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, for their support throughout. Continue reading
Posted May 8, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Street market At the plant stall Danny is talking about the weather it's been so fine but cold. For April. One of me customers lost a load of stuff to the frost on Monday. So everyone says it's going to rain tomorrow, it’s my only day off, we organised a barbecue an' all didn't we. With the neighbours. And I can't stand them. Garden centre ‘My neighbour tried to give me one, they’re unstoppable. I don’t think she realised I’ve got one that’s reaching over her fence already.’ Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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Not much has been made of the quiet irony that the city of Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games a few weeks before the country’s citizens vote for independence in September. This is surprising given the inescapable imperial connotations of the event and the rich vein of ironic defiance that seems to define the Scottish people. Until today, the organising body entertained seriously a proposal that the opening ceremony for those games should include the live demolition of the ‘Red Road flats’. We were told that this act was planned both as commemoration of a part of Glasgow's social history as well as a statement of the city's regeneration. If the proposal seems truly crass, so does the sense that those in question provoked the spirit of defiance and under-estimated the response. Today it was announced that the plans have been cancelled ‘because of safety and security concerns’. I’d describe the defiance of the organisers in this case as unworthy. It shouldn’t have required 15,000 signatures to a petition: a modicum of common sense would have done. My question is about how such a manifestly disrespectful and insensitive idea could have got as far as the agenda of the sub-committee of any sub-committee tasked with planning the event, let alone approved. How do we come to have people in public office who think the idea of watching homes being demolished is consistent with the celebration of international sporting endeavour? Perhaps the adoration of spectacle has got out of control. The spectacularisation of culture is not a trivial issue: many commentators have bemoaned the demise of subtlety and nuance in popular culture over the past couple of decades, as various media emphasise ‘impact’ above forms of culture that more modestly stimulate reflection. And we’re talking about places where people have lived. Surely in very few circumstances, even in the most blatantly necessary cases – think Fred West or Ian Huntley, if you must - can the destruction of a home be free of sadness. The notion of home is resonant with symbolism and with shared, long-lasting meaning: loss of home is always poignant and disturbing. It is a matter of deep shame for those concerned that they did not pause to reflect on this, but instead were somehow seduced by infantile imagined delight in the spectacle of falling totems, cascading breeze blocks and apocalyptic dust clouds. Continue reading
Posted Apr 13, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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Who needs comedians, when we’ve got David Cameron. “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago – I just want to see more of it,” Mr Cameron told an Easter reception in Downing Street. “If there are things that are stopping you from doing more, think of me as a giant Dyno-Rod to clear any blockages.” (In the Indie). Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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Occasionally my amateur interest in the history of the commons pokes through – for example while exploring the history of eating in public, questioning the present government’s attitude to public ownership, reflecting on the system of gebuurten developed in medieval European cities of Belgium and the Netherlands, or simply delighting in the history of neighbours. Perhaps we'll all be thinking and writing more on the topic, on the grounds that ‘It is almost a law of contemporary social life that the more commons are attacked, the more they are celebrated.’ This quote comes from an article in a special supplement on the commons, published by the good folk at Community development journal. Here's the blurb: Commons sense: new thinking about an old idea All articles permanently free to download Editors Mary McDermott, Tom O’Connell and Órla O’Donovan This Special Supplement aims to introduce the efflorescence of commons activism and thinking to people who are new to the old idea. In addition to celebrating how the commons can enrich our perceptions of the present and possible, the contributors caution us to look critically at contemporary discourses on the commons, recognizing how some actually reinforce capitalism, albeit with a human face. The articles demonstrate a high degree of reflexivity, along with clear and critical assessments by commoners themselves of their own projects. In articles focused on contemporary urban, water, knowledge and traditional music commons in contexts ranging from South Africa, Bolivia and Ireland, commoning right here, right now is considered. True to the spirit of the movement itself, many of the debates taking place between commoners with different ‘common senses’ are explored. The collection helped me appreciate how so many of the arguments and warnings about threats to the commons were offered by Ivan Illich years ago. It also gives us all a chance to reassess the relation between the commons and community development: could we have the latter without the former? As Maria Mies points out, reflecting on the village where she grew up, ‘no real community could exist without commons. All persons in the community were responsible to maintain and care for the commons, even children. This responsibility was not enforced by formal law, because it was evident to everybody that people's survival and subsistence depended on the commons and on free communal work.’ So take a look. Here you can have a think about paradoxes in the current momentum behind open access academic publishing, observing Orla O’Donovan’s ‘search for cracks in the pay walls that commodify and enclose much publicly subsidised research that should be common knowledge.’ You can reflect on the perception of traditional Irish music as ‘an artistic and cultural commons’ and the ‘annexation’ of sites of performance by the commerce of copyright. (Or as I did, just ponder how an author can describe himself as ‘radically rooted’). I recall that Illich’s works were out of print for some years in the UK, presumably because there was ‘no market’ for them. Perhaps that’s as strong an indicator... Continue reading
Posted Apr 10, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
The recent silence hereabouts is due to sub-optimal health. I've been clearing my throat. For days. Hmm, nothing wrong with this blog that a few posts won't cure. Oh look, here's a note on 'How to consult the public', over on Freedom from Command and Control: 'The words are important. The word ‘consultation’ has been replaced by the words dialogue and conversation. The conversation should be described as ongoing, constructive and mature, it is never a childish, unproductive one-off. To have a proper conversation, you need plenty of written documents. Make these documents comprehensive, polished and final. Seal off the consultation document with a front cover, logo and strapline. This creates the impression that the proposals are early ideas, open to change rather than a fait accomplis. Advertise the consultation with the original phrases ‘Have your say’ and ‘We’re listening’. Illustrative with photos of ears and megaphones. The look you are going for is jaunty, fun and patronising.' 'An event with more than 0 members of the community is a success. If no one comes, ask staff who live locally to ‘wear a different hat’ and contribute. If you are disappointed with the turnout, remember the dialogue is ongoing, not a one-off. No one can reach ‘Hard to Reach’ people. If they do reach back, you’ll end up with more writing up to do. At this point, the phrase ‘consultation fatigue’ becomes your friend. Rather than trying again, arrange an internal discussion on the causes of apathy in the community. If no one comes, the loop is closed and your work is done. Thanks (indirectly) Simon! Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s another of those puzzling comments from a Social-Exclusion-Denier that seem to characterise our current elite… According to Andy McSmith in the Indy, Liam Marshall-Ascough, a Conservative member of Crawley Borough Council in West Sussex, has obstructed a plan to introduce a food bank in the town hall, because he frankly does not think it is necessary: 'People aren’t in poverty in terms of going without food,' he tells the latest edition of the Crawley News. 'You try booking a restaurant in Crawley on a Friday or Saturday night. You can’t do it.' His local restaurateurs won’t be best pleased at this discouragement of trade (if there are any of course: one literal explanation for his remark could be the complete absence of said facilities, but this seems unlikely). More to the point, how do local residents feel about having a representative capable of such disarmingly irrational thought? In particular, how do those who didn’t vote for him feel about those who did? This is hardly an isolated example – stories of bizarre thinking on the part of UKIP representatives are especially common these days (e.g.). Is this a trend peculiar to our age? Is it the consequence of effortless publicity, that means people with ideological incontinence leave their undigested waste in public so consistently? Continue reading
Posted Mar 26, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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A few years ago I took part in a city visioning project in Peterborough, in the low-lying east of England. In a 3D modelling exercise, some of us were putting homes on stilts. I recall that it had to be pointed out to one or two local stakeholders that by 2030, they will probably be under water. (Image via). The lesson was that this hadn’t been taken on - although recent months of flooding will by now have helped to spread awareness among all but the most bone-headed and selfish (naming no names, some of which are here). I was reminded of this while flicking through the Guardian’s article and images about floating cities. These places already exist, after a fashion – enormous cruise ships for the flitting unlocated wealthy, who apparently would rather keep circumnavigating the globe than pay taxes to a state – but not yet in the sense envisaged by a few architects, planners and utopians such as the Seasteading Institute. Either way, in the promo material the sea is nearly always crystal clear and flat. Incidentally, I don't take much interest in films, but I'd appreciate it if someone could direct me to an apocalyptic post-flood movie I saw part of once, which had memorable lines like 'They did something bad, the ancestors, didn't they?' You bet they did. This is fascinating stuff, and I’m all for an ambitious dose of what amounts to blue-sea thinking, every so often. It’s easy to drift off into some unrealistic scenarios though. Here’s the Seasteading take on the personal advantages of living in a floating village, for example: ‘Personal Freedom - People will soon be able to live in floating cities, and enjoy the freedom of the high seas. As the last unclaimed territory on the earth, the ocean provides the ability to live peacefully without the encyclopedia of laws and tangle of bureaucracies present on land. Seasteaders will be able to start fresh, live with minimal regulation, and explore a bold experiment with personal freedom.’ You might need Californian contact lenses to see things that way, but to me that’s just a cue to think more closely about the nature of neighbouring in contexts where people may not have much choice in the kind of floating neighbourhood they have to inhabit. What kind of scale are we talking about? What kind of neighbourhood might it be, for instance, if you can’t just get up and walk across some notional blurred boundary into the next one? What are the governance implications? What kinds of social network might we come to depend on? And who will occupy the physical high ground? Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Sorting through some papers today, I came across a fieldwork note from a project I was evaluating a couple of years ago. It involved a bunch of young people looked after, on an outing with a hugely interesting environmentalist (among others). My note, verbatim: Stuart had been talking about birds and wildlife for about 1.5 hrs when one of the girls (age about 15) said “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not really interested in birds.” I posted about this outing at the time, reflecting on the sensitivity of the young people, who know all about the power of feelings and the way others tend to disregard them. There’s also a short article about the project here. Continue reading
Posted Mar 19, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
Radical community work journal will go live in October 2014. 'We are inviting practitioners, activists, community organisations and academics to send us material for inclusion in the the first edition. Please email the editors with material, questions, ideas, etc.' Continue reading
Posted Mar 14, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
'The world is full of people who want to tell others how they should be living, when what they should be doing is sitting down with them and finding out what their lives are really like, and why they're like that in the first place.' Photographer Jim Mortram in a recent Guardian article. Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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Postcodes are commonly associated with the lottery of poor service provision, but not so much with being common. I learn from a BBC magazine article by Jon Kelly today that many people are preoccupied with postcodes and dissatisfied with their own. Is this more a cause of class divisions, or an effect? If we didn’t already live in a highly stratified society, maybe these arbitrary strings of letters and numbers would be a matter of universal indifference and do no more than serve their function of distinguishing one place from another. But I think it’s more likely that the very act of ‘distinguishing one place from another’ implies hierarchical arrangement for many people, and the prospect of superiority and inferiority, in a way that our culture likes to reinforce. Kelly reports that ‘aggrieved groups who feel their postcode somehow doesn't reflect their sense of place are campaigning for change’ – I didn’t realise you could – and doing so with ‘a separatist zeal’. It strikes me that you have to ‘come out’ as a snob in order to organise or participate in a campaign of this sort. You can’t just mumble behind the net curtains, you have to make public statements about yourself in relation to others; and you have to make those statements with other people and to other people. It’s this readiness to accept being identified as a snob – almost as if it were something to be proud of – that I find most curious. Is our age uncharacteristic in this sense, or is this a phenomenon universal across history and geography? (Is there a social anthropologist in the house?) (And what's their address?) Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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It can be hard to find a good word to say about estate agents. This morning I had a conversation about their role (or potential role) as sponsors for neighbourhood online networks. There are examples around and you can see why it works for all parties. But whoever heard of an estate agent who says they will invest their profits into community development? Say hello to Urban Patchwork: ‘We believe that all estate agents should be run as social enterprises, where, after running costs and people’s salaries, all profits are pumped back into the local communities where they operate. This would mean that estate agents would contribute positively to empowering the less well-off in their area, instead of contributing to pricing people out of their own communities. People would also want to use them because they would know their money is benefiting their community as a whole, helping to create a more collective and diverse environment in which to live.’ It’s curious how without thought we come to accept certain kinds of service as belonging in the private sector, and others as being in the public sector. But there are some examples that force us to reflect. Most people probably think the fire service, for instance, is rightly a public service; but its origins are in the private sector (insurance). Many people might suppose that the lifeboat system is publicly-funded, and perhaps it should be, but it’s entirely charitable. The great thing about the social enterprise movement is that it stimulates fresh thinking on these sorts of questions without getting tangled in the ridiculous anti-public ideology of the right. Why shouldn’t the work of estate agents be seen as a community service? I’m really impressed. Continue reading
Posted Feb 28, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
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The recent extensive flooding in England was not too bad around where I live, but still it has highighted the ways nature will take revenge when abused: sometimes with violence, sometimes with subtlety. Here, the canal level seems to have raised quantities of plastic junk and then left it on display as the waters receded, as if to say, 'Excuse me, you dropped something'. Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2014 at Neighbourhoods
First they came for the benefits, and I did not speak out, because I was not on benefits. Then they came for the care services, and I did not speak out, because I was not in care. Then they came for the pensions and the squatters and the spare rooms, and I did not speak out, because I have my own home and some savings. Then they came for legal aid, and I did not speak out, because I have not yet been arrested and accused. Then they came for the teachers, and the nurses, and the social workers, and the health visitors, and the librarians, and the probation workers, and the firefighters, and the environmental experts, and there was no-one left to support me. (With apologies to Martin Niemoller) Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2014 at Neighbourhoods