Accumulation through Dispossession

The London property market is out of control. My son is a carpenter and it will take him about 300 years to buy one of the flats he is currently fitting out. The flats are called luxury, but they are smaller in room size and overall size than similar flats from the 1930’s. The ethos at their workplace is speed – put stuff up as quickly as possible. Few construction workers expect to be able to do their building job beyond 40 years old – the toll on their health will be too great. The places they put up are unlikely to last as long as buildings erected one hundred years before, but the profit the company owner makes from each unit is 1000%.

Something is wrong when police, ambulance and fire workers, nurses, teachers and skilled traders are unable to purchase a home of their own in the town they serve. Something is wrong when post-graduate students are finding it cheaper to live on the continent in Brussels, Barcelona or Madrid and fly in every other week for their tutorial in London.

The market which is highly regulated in terms of what we all spend on keeping the peace, has been de-regulated to allow those with assets to bully, steal, and hoard more and more, until only the biggest players are able to afford the game. Former crimes like greed, gluttony and the shame of stealing from the poor through small print and unfair practice are no longer recognised, in the march of accumulation for the exclusively wealthy. They are grabbing more and more through the dispossession of everyone else, in despite that all our forbearers built up this earth and its wealth.

Something is wrong when investors buy up much needed properties, pushing the prices of a de-regulated property market higher and they never intend to live in them – land banking empties to accumulate wealth for people who may never set foot in town.

Something is wrong when the majority of people who have a place, still feel insecure in case the market implodes, or they fear moving because prices have gone up more than they can afford, or the new properties on offer look good when new, but if you look closely you can see the mastic doesn’t quite cover the gap, and the staples are already coming out from the skirting.

Something is wrong when the rather enlightening philosophy School of Life, calls for the gaoling of developers in their film the Ruin of London https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QcbsedsGdA  , for desecrating and stealing the skyline with their “horror storeys”.

Something is wrong when we talk about “social housing” and “affordable housing” with an assumption this will be poorer in quality and cheaper than private.

This is the problem when you leave things to a market run by people whose ambition is to make money. They have no interest in quality or longevity or the greater good. Government should be investing in public buildings of the highest quality that are rented at cost price (because it’s our money) with local people in mind. The aim should be for public buildings to last at least five hundred years which sets the future free – meaning we do not have to repeat back breaking work – like wage slavery. Do we really want to be building shoddy money boxes which will have to be pulled down and rebuilt properly in the future? Is our responsibility to build attractive public homes with beautiful public spaces, or should we let the market trash our culture so a tiny minority of lazy avaricious gluttons can hide themselves in gated mansions in between sunbathing on an undeserved yacht? 

Bankruptcy of War

It’s hard to believe well into our 21st century there are still a queue of people fuelling war by selling guns, bombs, weapons of mass destruction, all of them made with explosive chemicals, and fashioned to devastate lives, wreck families, destroy communities, spread terror among ordinary people.

It’s easy to demonise a fanatic who ploughs murderous mayhem into a crowd, but he’s just the obvious guy with mental health problems, who believes he’s following the crazy voice in his head saying life is death.

Perhaps the real nasty pieces of work are the men in suits, smiling behind broad desks in plush offices in Czech Republic, from Britain, America, Germany, South Africa, Israel, Russia, China, selling weapons to fuel wars in the hot spots of the world wherever semi-educated people bear a grudge, or war lords harbour hatred?

War is Terror. The global news nightmare we suffer spreads fear through hearth and home. Right wing authoritarians believe war is inevitable and history belongs to hard men. Their foolishness ignores the 99% of people who have always longed for peace. Left wingers still have a penchant for the gangster style of Marx, with bankrupt class war. When will we find a radical voice for peace? Both wings of these flightless birds are intellectually redundant.

History teaches us that the truly great leaders, the real warriors of time were the prophets of peace. Mohamed, Christ, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Tolstoy to name a few – knew that war was mad, a dead end chaos for losers.

Why sell arms when you could use the money creating double the jobs and prosperity in an inclusive, creative and positive economy? We all pay the price of war, except for the governments and arms traders who live in exclusive luxury and protect themselves with private and public security.

We need to wise up and stop supporting the terrorists in our parliaments and weapons businesses, as well as the terrorists in clandestine cells. They are the same type. The weak minded simpletons of “might is right”, the crooners of fear, the mad people for whom we should temporarily re-open our asylums and give intensive therapy.

Life can be fun, beautiful and brilliant. We have never needed war – an occupation for the insane and cruel.

Rentier's need boundaries

The star architect Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects is trying to nudge us ever closer to the point where rent becomes the purpose of existence for a whole tranche of people contributing almost nothing to a better world. His intellectual bankruptcy would destroy communities built up over generations by abolishing social and affordable housing and replacing them by “people who have second homes….here for only a few weeks and throw some key parties, these are amazing multiplying events.”

Here is a blind man who does not see the elements required to make a city work - the streets cleaned, the water running, the lights on at night, the traffic flowing, the vendors plying their trade, the musicians strumming a tune – but instead everything is down to the price that can be paid for central real estate. What a cul de sac!

If we break down rent into its component parts – there is some for maintenance (repairs and renewal over time), some for service charges such as collective utilities, and then there is profit – a surcharge by the owner to take from the tenant’s pocket. Hasn’t the building been paid for? Weren’t the bricks and mortar already signed off? Haven’t the builders had wages settled? Why then does the financier, who takes the least risk of all and does the least amount of productive work, continue to gain from the labour of others, simply because he or she owns the building. Shouldn’t ownership be responsibility, rather than an opportunity to make a quick buck. This is an imbalance in our system that needs correction. Rent which is beyond maintenance and service charge, is a corrupt payment for a failing system.

If our social evolution wrings out high rents it will backfire and drive people away, or to despair. In the end the economy will go bust if too many people earn something for nothing. We complain about the corruption of other nations, where payments to make things happen are termed bribes, but at my own work place - a church, which you would think had a long-term view, they have quadrupled our rents over the past 12 years, and the last doubling in which profit was injected, was done with a forked tongue. We were told, because the market rent was 40% higher than what we would now pay, the church was actually giving us charity. So our rent doubled and we were expected to be thankful. This is despite the church being built with public money by a previous generation. There was no recognition that we were providing outreach for the church and bringing in new congregations, except when they use our charitable work for their fundraising drive. We could make the case we should be paid by doing the church’s work for them. The rent increase to the church means we lose an apprentice, which they say is their vision – finding employment for young people.

In England the family silver was sold off in the 1980’s and now the land is being flogged off to the highest bidder. It can only lead to land reform – where the people re-assert their sovereignty. We own the land. Or more precisely, we look after land for the benefit of future generations.

Examples of this shift in emphasis can be seen in parks which are expected to generate income, with the consequent loss of quiet green space, replaced by winter wonderlands, retail outlets, mega concerts and anything else which will turn some cash. The prisons in America are another example of where this way of thinking leads – let’s make money from prisons and fill them up with inmates. America now has one quarter of the world’s prisoners, with only 5% of the world’s population. When the bottom line is money, this is where we’re heading – another dead end, with all its consequent prejudices and injustices. The criminal justice system and our basic economic structures are implicated in crime and corruption. Let’s stop pointing fingers at others people’s bribes and clean up our own act.

Shakespeare’s London

Leave Your Mark on Shakespeare’s London

In 2016, the nation is coming together to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Southbank Mosaic wants your help to reweave the lost fabric of Elizabethan and Jacobean London in the form of site specific murals evoking the streets where Shakespeare lived and worked. These mosaics will reflect the places, people and words he wrote.

The street art mosaics will have a permanent impact on public space and we need your help to get it right. Join our team of scholars, archaeologists, actors, architects, historians, artisans, artists, citizens,  local businesses and the dispossessed. You can support us through research and detective work about Shakespeare’s life, using your imagination for ideas about what we could install, by gaining permissions from landlords and the authorities, with design and making of mosaic murals, or with fundraising to support the project.

If Shakespeare was to walk around London today, he would hardly recognise where he was apart from the river Thames. The bridge over the river which he knew has gone and our bridges have been built since his time.

If you or I take a walk with the City of London Guides around Shakespeare’s London you will find few in situ buildings from his time and most likely you will listen to the guide explaining how Shakespeare was an actor at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, or put on indoor plays in the former Blackfriars monastery, or passed by a bull fight on his way to the Globe Theatre, but you will be looking at brick and concrete buildings and exercising your imagination about the daub and wattle he was more familiar with.

Isn’t it remarkable how the English language flows like liquid history into the sea and reaches every shore on earth, having been replenished by the rainfall of global dialects from the highlands and lowlands of every continent, while emanating from these sceptred British Isles? One thing Shakespeare would understand is the language we use, many of whose phrases come from him.

No individual has risen to such international acclaim for his way with words as William Shakespeare. Mostly self-educated, from an obscure shire town, Shakespeare made his way to London and here was to write plays about Moors, Venetians, Danes, imagined states, Verona and Scotland although there is no evidence he left England.

Francis Drake became the second captain of a ship to circumnavigate the Globe 1577-80. News of this feat and how the world was round-shaped rather than flat was spread to every village and town in the country. England was ruled by Elizabeth I, and through force of personality women achieved forms of equality that were many years ahead of their legal status. The threat of invasion by the Armada in 1588 as Shakespeare walked to London pitched the greatest military force on earth (Spain) against a virgin queen and her anxious people.

If subjects of the crown were not watching the coast line for invasion, they were often fighting each other, with some estimates saying that virtually the entire adult male population were armed with blades and a quarter of all men died from knife and sword wounds. When Shakespeare arrived in London you were lucky to reach the age of 30. Even more likely than being murdered, you could erupt with buboes and the plague would strike you down. Doctors of the time thought blood-letting with leeches was the best way to cure maladies. Economists, financiers and accountants had yet to be named, but Duke’s, Falstaffs and Belches abounded.

Elizabeth I’s lack of a successor threatened civil war between aggressive contenders, fuelled by international politics and the flames of religious fanaticism. The port of London traded goods from as far as China, with ambassadors from principalities in Asia, Africa and Europe – many other nations were aware of rich pickings for a new head of state.

After James I took over the crown following Elizabeth’s death in 1603 he had to contend with the most serious terrorist plot in England’s history, an attempt to blow up Parliament. Shakespeare may well have been in the crowd and he certainly would have heard stories about the gruesome end of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters, hanging until near death, with their arms and legs hacked off, stomachs split open, hearts taken out and heads put on spikes outside the House of Lords.

There were many forms of entertainment in London at the time, apart from hanging around. Bears were baited with dogs, cocks were fitted with spurs and set against each other, bull fights took place where Tate Modern now looms, and the Bishop of Winchester ran a brothel. The rock stars of the day were preachers who gave public sermons and could draw crowds of up to 5000 people in St Paul’s church yard. Theatres were a licensed form of public entertainment, slightly frowned on, somewhere you could go to meet friends and strangers and see and hear fantastic stories of royal intrigue, love and bravery, or corrupt officials. For a brief period when Shakespeare was writing there was a sense of tangible freedom, as well as the chance to make some money in private playhouses by putting on shows which captured the excitement and ferment of the time. Like a renowned meteor whose path lit up both space and time, Shakespeare’s words have come down to us and continue to give many audiences and readers pleasure.

Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life apart from his writing. The great fire of London, the blitz and developers through the ages have destroyed the buildings he knew. The river remains (although much embanked since Shakespeare’s time) and a few churches and palaces. It is only recently that as a culture we have learned to value what was built in the past, to upkeep masonry and ancient decorations, to understand, protect and treasure our history.

Part of the Enlightenment (mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity), The Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1707 and received its royal charter in 1751 in “furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.”  It was largely a discussion forum. It wasn’t until 1814 the first archaeological site opened to the public at Bignor farm stead, with the mosaic floors of a Roman villa being the main attraction. Gradually a fascination with our past spread out of salons into the wider culture.

When two world wars destroyed much of Europe people realised we had to reflect on and protect the valuable hard work of previous generations if we wanted to avoid destroying ourselves. Heritage was shielded with listing and regulations to protect how we used to live and make use of what was handed down. The fashion to destroy and pull things down has waned, although many still rail against this heritage movement.

Southbank Mosaics will revive a spirit of the Elizabethan city through our Shakespeare’s London project. Contact us for further details and to discuss how you can help.

E: info@southbankmosaics.com

Tel: 0207620 6070

Towards Closing Prisons

Like slaves in chains we still send criminals behind bars. Individuals who have done wrong, like we all have, must be given an opportunity, after judgement, to re-pay the victim and community for their offence. Most of them have committed crimes like debt-default, fraud, fighting, deception, impersonation, speeding, taking drugs or smuggling.  Putting them in cages, isolated from their family and surrounded by disturbed people is one step away from a coffin. Providing them with food, shelter, clothes and utilities is unlikely to inspire active citizenship. Locking them away for 23 hours in a cell may be punishment, but it probably won’t mend their ways. Encouraging them to study or work inside prison may put in place useful practice, but in such a closed environment the skill transfer is limited.

Evidence shows most prisoners re-offend. Most do not learn their lesson. Most create more victims and are let out to harm communities again – except this time they have better networks and inside knowledge of crime. Many have mental health problems. Many will be unable to find work and if they do, they will lose the post when their criminal record is uncovered. Many will be radicalised – feeling the system is taxed against them and they must tough it out. They invert logic: if the good guys are actually bad then killing becomes legitimate if you’re in a war frame of mind – ask George Bush or Tony Blair? Outcomes show prison does not work – today’s Caliphate is evidence.

An alternative blueprint is to operate up to 5000 small community improvement studios (CIS) around the country, whose aim is to be self-sufficient, ranging from specialist farming or market gardening centres to town and urban studios, where horticulture, sculpture, high quality social home building, fine food production and heritage schemes are practised around the notion of “making my neighbourhood better” through artisan craft standards.

About 10 – 20 offenders would be allocated to each studio, taking in up to 80,000 participants per year. The aims of the studios based on principles of

  • Improving estates, public spaces and community assets
  • Supporting restorative justice and the rehabilitation of offenders
  • Serving a range of sentence types, based on contract, from 2 hours per week for young people to 2 or 3 days per week for adults ensuring they keep in contact with family and education/work
  • Non-profit operations with a cost neutral target and an agreed reserve of £150,000 per studio per year (which can be built up as assets) – making a total cost of £750million each year.

We estimate the potential saving to the country of opening small artisan therapeutic centres in place of prisons could be about £500,000,000, during a transitional period, with further substantial savings in the future.

This will take time to evolve as the present system adjusts and officers are re-trained into more effective and positive work practices and environment. Each studio could be staffed with a therapist, at least one ex-prison officer, a skilled artisan and an assistant or apprentice. Their broad role is to improve community safety and the enhancement of the natural and built environment. Within the model there should be provision for ex-offenders to be either employed, or supported to set up their own artisan studio.

Development and maintenance: balancing fair rent

There is no point in new building unless we factor in maintaining our current stock. There should be an agreed balance between development and maintenance (perhaps ratio 1:4) with privately owned and public buildings and infra-structure being prioritised for maintenance.

The notion that local authorities should meet briefly to give out maintenance contracts, misses the purpose of our personal connection to place. We make our home and our neighbourhood. If the group with responsibility for maintaining public space has prioritised price and profit above people and place, then we are privatising principles.

I am more broadly religious than deeply religious enjoying the cultures of many faiths. In my view the most successful business is the church. In England, for example, there are 16,000 parish churches with over 28,000 assorted vicars ministering to every neighbourhood in the land. This institution has been growing/slimming and maintaining its assets for 1,500 years and more. At one point it was so successful the crown stole most of its abbeys and it still survived. Most businesses fail within 2 or 3 years, few survive 50 years and exceptional businesses may last 100 years. But none has had the staying power of the church. In other places it is the temple or mosque with a similar track record.

Perhaps we should be looking more closely at the evidence for how and why the church has flourished for so long. Churches create a sense of place. They are the heart and soul of a community. They have promoted graft and craft, literally carved stone on stone, molten metal into sculpture, word into poetry and literature, music into song and dance, performance entwined with perfume and rapture.

Rent seems to be an attempt to slice off a profit, to create idleness for a few, undermining the group ethic of putting up a building by a legal sleight of hand to give benefit to the few, at the expense of collective achievement. The notion that those who manipulate financial figures should receive on-going recompense, above and beyond the contributions of architects, engineers, manufacturers and builders is absurd. The component in “rent” that is service – for example cleaning and utilities, is sensible; or maintenance – to fix rooves and broken windows, is good. But when you try to add profit – then rent makes itself penury rather than parish.

Perhaps we need to consider how the foundation of culture is finding rhythm and harmony together and remember that all land and building is evidence before our eyes of the essential collective nature of human existence. For there is scarcely a single building that has just been put up by one person – many hands helped. We need a simple law to remind us that all land and building is owned by the sovereign people: ourselves as a culture. The other tiers of private ownership can remain as essentially responsibilities to make good use of what others have given us. Empty buildings are an insult to heritage and we should be making sensible arrangements for their speedy return to use. As for using buildings as a profit medium, it seems to fly in the face of common sense. It is an area where our current reality must change – can’t you hear the groans of the younger generation trying to cope with exorbitant housing costs in places built by their grandparents?

Now this is not the prevailing view, but an historical perspective looking through the prism of arguably the most successful enterprise through the ages. When we introduce this new law for land reform (land is owned by the sovereign people), it should be done with a view to gradual and assured steps that keep the continuing order of most commons, while pruning the disruptive influence of greed in the property market